Arms and the Man

There’s a delightful anecdote about George Bernard Shaw at one of the early performances of Arms and the Man. Amidst tumultuous applause, he was brought onto the stage. A lone voice booed him. Shaw turned to the man and said, "My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?" This riposte gives an insight into the man’s wit, sense of humour and desire to embrace all people.

A brilliant and joyous gift for all lovers of theatre

There was no such dissent at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, where the play is running until mid January, just a similarly rapturous reception for Paul Miller’s final production as the theatre’s Artistic Director. Miller, as a leading exponent of Shaw, boldly takes on the play, stretching its comedy to the limits whilst retaining its emotional integrity. This is his sixth Shaw play at the theatre, so he knows the man very well and has developed the ability to reach into the heart of the man and the depths of his works.

The play was first performed in April 1894. Shaw was aged 38, making it one of his earliest plays. It was an immediate success and has remained so ever since. George Orwell regarded it as ‘probably the wittiest play he ever wrote, the most flawless technically, and in spite of being a very light comedy, the most telling’. It’s set during the Serbo-Bulgarian War (November 1885 to March 1886). and although a period piece there is nothing dated about it. Rather, it is an early example of the later British tradition of situation comedy with melodrama used to accentuate its critique of the folly of war and the foolishness of those who engage in it. It also highlights the absurdities of social stratification and illustrates the nature of human frailty, pretence and hypocrisy, particularly where romance is concerned.

It is around these themes that the story is woven. The beautiful Raina (Rebecca Collingwood) enjoys a privileged life as the daughter of Major Petkoff (Jonathan Tafler) and his wife Catherine (Miranda Foster). She is in love with Sergius (Alex Bhat), the swashbuckling hero of the Bulgarian army whose victory in the Battle of Slivnitsa decided the war’s outcome, though not without some controversy regarding his tactics. Here Shaw puts in one of his digs at the whole military business: “I won the battle the wrong way when our worthy Russian generals were losing it the right way”. Bhat’s performance and stature make comparisons with John Cleese inevitable and he's just as funny. His triumph somewhat diminished, upon his return, Sergius has other battles to win. As Lysander said, “The course of true love never did run smooth”. While he was away Raina encountered Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann) a charming major and mercenary who sought refuge in her house. Waldmann brilliantly captures the idealism and cynicism of the man and with the seductive presence he gives to Bluntschli it is no wonder he ignites a flame in her. Meanwhile, downstairs, the dutiful manservant Nicola (Jonah Russell) has designs on the feisty yet very attractive maid Louka, (Kemi Awoderu) to whom Sergius is also attracted, despite his upstairs situation. Russell captures the traditional subservient and dutiful essence of his position which he stoutly defends against the rebellious and challenging socialism that Awoderu delivers with passion. Leave it to Shaw to give his women powerful roles and the intellect and ability to assert themselves.

Comical situations arise, worthy of a classic Whitehall farce, and the spot-on delivery of lines with impeccable timing by all the cast makes for some hilarious moments that provoke outbursts of laughter in response to the most brilliantly devised humour. Foster frantically manages the surprise return of Bluntschli in a classic front door entrance and backdoor exit, while Tafler delivers the most amusing elderly bafflement concerning his disappearing overcoat and the mystery of the photograph to which we know the answers. Staged in the round, Miller, from years of experience, knows how to manage this space. He assigns skilled manoeuvres to the cast, dare one say with military precision, that ensures the flow of movement and that no side of the audience is left out of the action.

Much of this is facilitated by Simon Daw’s set design, which changes for each of the three acts as the play moves around the house. Between the bed and the dresser there is ample space for Collingwood to excitedly run around during Raina’s conversations with her mother and Bluntschli. Other sets similarly accommodate action and, of course, Petkoff has his favourite chair in which to sit. Working with Deputy Stage Manager Julia Crammer and Assistant Stage Manager Jamie Craker the team has created some authentic touches. The large icon on the bedroom wall provides the religious context and the library, to which the family make repeated reference as a symbol of their wealth, learning and status, is revealed as a bookcase, but with the attention to detail of all the spines having been overwritten with titles in Cyrillic. All of this is sensitively lit by Lighting Designer Mark Doubleday with Sound Designer & Composer Elizabeth Purnell adding classical music and effects to enhance the mood and remind us of the battles raging in the streets.

The obscure Serbo-Bulgarian War might be distant but the social situations it created must surely live on today in Ukraine, bringing this work into our own age. The values that Shaw promotes and the observations he made are also as valid now as when he scripted the play. Sergius explains, “Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward's art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm's way when you are weak. That is the whole secret of successful fighting. Get your enemy at a disadvantage; and never, on any account, fight him on equal terms”. And as Raina points out, when the war is over, “What glory is there in killing wretched fugitives?”

The play has nothing to do with Christmas, but in the season of pantomimes it's a production that is by no means out of place. Congratulations to all concerned for dusting down this play and bringing it to life as a brilliant and joyous gift for all lovers of theatre.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

A chance moonlit encounter throws together an idealistic young woman and a Swiss mercenary with an unexpectedly realistic attitude to soldiering. Raina’s youthful love for Sergius, the swashbuckling fighting hero of the Bulgarian army, is challenged when she learns more of the realities of war. Bluntschli’s coolly ironic good sense starts to seem more like the future. When Louka, the servant of the family sets her sights on Sergius, the stage is set for an epic moral battle.

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