Major Barbara: Shaw’s morality play brought to vivid, contemporary life

An exploration of the perceived morality of extreme positions pits religious idealism against pragmatic realism within a single family unit

Eleanor Methven and Marty Rea in Major Barbara. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Eleanor Methven and Marty Rea in Major Barbara. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Sat, Jan 18, 2014, 11:36

Major Barbara
Abbey Theatre
****


In his 1891 essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism, George Bernard Shaw argued that society is made up of three discrete types of people: philistines, who have no capacity for creative thought; idealists, who believe in the tangibility of the impossible; and realists, who can see the world for what it is. His 1905 play Major Barbara dramatises this personal philosophy, by pitting religious idealism against pragmatic realism within a single family unit.

Barbara Undershaft, a major in the Salvation Army, is Shaw’s earnest idealist. She has thrown off the social expectations of her class to dedicate herself to saving the souls of the poor, but does not realise that her altruism is compromised by her own privilege. Her estranged father Andrew, a weapons manufacturer, is Mephistopheles to her saintly martyr.

The three-act play is essentially an exploration of the perceived morality of their extreme positions, with the more measured reasoning of minor characters forcing Barbara and Andrew to reconsider their positions. However, to suggest that Major Barbara is nothing more than a dull and lifeless debate about religion would be to do Shaw’s command of characterisation, and Annabelle Comyn’s riveting production, an injustice as grave as any other uncovered in this complex, thoroughly human play.

Paul O’Mahony’s set is a cathedral of civilisation. The book-lined study of the Britomart family home is overlooked by a majestic statue of Britannia, who epitomises all the values that the patriarch has overthrown in his embrace of capitalism. By the third act, it has been reconfigured as a monument to war, in a brilliant stroke of visual irony that makes the play feel contemporary.

Clare Dunne and Paul McGann make riveting opponents as Barbara and Andrew. However, Comyn’s forensic attention to every subtle argument makes even minor characters vital players, and the cast embodies her vision with memorable vivacity. From Ali White’s Rummy Mitchens bawling from the window of the Salvation Army’s residence to Emmet Kirwan’s preaching, pound-pinching hypocrite, Price; from Eleanor Methven’s outraged matriarch Lady Britomart, to Ian Lloyd Anderson’s principled thug Bill Walker: there are so many good performance, it seems almost unfair to single any actor out.

And yet, Marty Rea’s equivocating Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins becomes our unlikely hero, his relativist philosophy singing a true secularist song that resounds provocatively to the modern ear. Until September 21