Centre stage – Laurence Foster on George Bernard Shaw and the Malvern Theatre Festival

An Irishman’s Diary

George Bernard Shaw: of his 63 plays, seven  saw the light of day at the Malvern Theatre Festival. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Bernard Shaw: of his 63 plays, seven saw the light of day at the Malvern Theatre Festival. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Sixty years ago, Sir Barry Jackson, the founder of Birmingham Repertory Theatre, shuffled of his mortal coil, but not before he had created another cultural institution. Just a few miles southwest of the sprawling conurbation of Birmingham, the landscape suddenly rolls out into a green and unexpected carpet. It then unfurls its furrowed way to Worcestershire, finally flopping itself at the feet of the rising hills of Malvern, a small spa town with a grand opinion of itself as a cultural oasis, thanks to Sir Barry. However, this pride is well earned, having annually hosted the cream of new stage plays and, in particular, those of Bernard Shaw.

Founded in 1929, Malvern preceded the Edinburgh Theatre Festival by 18 years and is senior to the Dublin Theatre Festival by28 years. The reference to Dublin is ironic, as the Malvern Festival was created in honour of Bernard Shaw whom, having forsaken the name George, with its House of Hanover and British connotation, had also forsaken his native land to live in “perfidious Albion”!

At that time, Jackson was probably of the opinion that Shaw was nearing the end of a prestigious career and could possibly have felt that this modern festival was to be as much a tribute, as well as an honour, to the venerable old man of theatre. Shaw eventually provided plays for Malvern for 20 more years, an amazing feat, considering the fact that he was in his seventies when the festival commenced.

Actors and directors were, by now, possibly less in fear and trembling at the prospect of working with Shaw. They probably felt that he was no longer capable of leaping up on stage and wildly brandishing whatever prop was to hand. This regular demonstrative attempt to illustrate the company’s failure to extract the true meaning of his text would certainly not be missed.

However, new plays flowed freely from his still dynamic pen. The Apple Cart, specially commissioned for the initial festival, Too Good to be True, The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, Geneva, and Buoyant Billions followed.

In 1935 Shaw was granted the freedom of the city of London and celebrated by promptly embarking on a tour of South Africa with Mrs Shaw. It wasn’t until his 90th birthday that his native city of Dublin saw fit to bestow a similar honour upon his snow-white head. Edward Elgar, a native of Malvern, bestowed an honour upon Shaw by dedicating his composition Nursery Suite to him, in appreciation of their great and lasting friendship.

Bernard Shaw’s last completed play, Shakes versus Shave, was also commissioned for the Malvern Festival.

An unusual piece, to say the least, it made innovative use of the latest technology at that time – tape recording! The performers were marionettes and the “six characters in search of strings” were Shaw himself, Shakespeare, Rob Roy, Macbeth, Captain Shotover and Ellie Dunne. The latter two being characters from Shaw’s Heartbreak House, of course.

It was probably the first time that a living person had been presented as a puppet and Shaw’s dialogue was pre-recorded by a grand old thespian, Ernest Thesiger. Christopher Casson’s father, Sir Lewis Casson, provided the vocal representation of Mr Shakespeare.

It was said at the time that this unusual approach would open up a wonderful vista for puppetry, and yet it was nearly 40 years before the infamous television series Spitting Image took up the challenge.

During Shaw’s lifetime, of his 63 plays, seven saw the light of day at Malvern. Only one play, The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, received a premiere in his native Dublin.

To add insult to the injury of this astonishing fact, many masterpieces were premiered world-wide.

The Apple Cart, written for the initial Malvern Festival, was first performed in Warsaw! The reason was simple economic necessity. Continental theatre managers berated hostile English critics, claiming that their negative reviews were damaging the potential of subsequent productions of Shaw’s plays and demanded that they must have first bite. Shaw was only too pleased to comply.

The Apple Cart was revived for the 1949 festival in that idyllic Worcestershire setting, and, was to be a glorious swan-song for the great GBS.

He died the following year with the draft of his final play, Why She Would Not, unfinished.

Covid may have halted Malvern’s progress of growth and prosperity, but soon may that town again be able to wear her festival attire with grace and aplomb, an impressive reminder of the heights attained by human endeavour, and by two humans in particular.

Ninety glorious years of theatrical endeavour have been celebrated by this “Mother of All Festivals, and the memory of its favourite Irish child still remains green, and the verve and foresight of Sir Barry Jackson is very much cherished.

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