Reviewed by James Karas
The Shaw Festival’s brochure gives us fair notice about what to expect from the production of Androcles and the Lion. The production “will be a daring theatre experiment: everyone in the room, actors, and audience, will have the chance to get involved.”
Even “daring” and “experiment” do not quite prepare you for the extent of the interference, interpolations, violence and burlesque effects that are done to a play that Shaw wrote.
Before the house lights go down for the beginning of the performance, we see the cast on stage doing pushups, playing games and talking to members of the audience. All friendly and congenial.
The performance begins with a Host (a very affable Shawn Wright) making some amusing remarks. He then tells us that plays used to begin with an overture at one time. Sure enough, we get the large cast marching on stage playing a variety of musical instruments and producing a cacophony that is very funny.
The host then reads from Shaw’s extensive stage directions, adlibbing and engaging the audience. The lion of the play is chosen from the audience and the dialogue of the Prologue as written by Shaw begins between the hapless Androcles (Patrick Galligan) and his obnoxious wife Megaera (Jenny L. Wright). But not for long. As Megaera complains that Androcles is selfish, never thinks of her and the like, he turns to the audience and asks “Have you ever heard that?” It gets a laugh.
The Prologue as done by Galligan and Wright is very funny with or without the interpolations and other shenanigans and the lion from the audience is highly entertaining. But the interference with the text is what Director Tim Carroll has chosen as the way he wants this production and that style continues for the rest of the performance.
But there is more. Cast members are asked to tell us what they are thinking, about incidents or stories from their lives. They do and they do it well. The stories they tell are interesting, humorous (is the timer on my oven working so that when I go home the ribs will be ready?) and informative when they read excerpts from Shaw’s lengthy Preface to the play explaining the political thrust of the piece.
Does it work?
That depends on your attitude. If you are happy with the text of the play being used like a crutch for burlesque and the creation of laughter with little reference to what the author wrote, you will enjoy this production. In the performance that I saw, most of the audience did. But if you believe that the text should be respected and serious deviations, innumerable interpolations and brutalization of the play should be reserved for, say, Monty Python then you will not be thrilled by Tim Carroll’s approach.
The performances by the cast were excellent and they would have done justice to the play with less interference to the text by the director. Galligan is touching and funny as the Greek tailor who pulls the thorn out of the lion’s paw. Neil Barclay is hilarious as the king-size Emperor. Julia Course is a very attractive Lavinia, a devout Christian who is also a fine woman. Jeff Irving as Ferrovius is also a devout and powerful Christian who has anger management problems and is hilarious within and outside the text of the play.
Shawn Wright plays the Centurion, an ineffective martinet who gets more laughs than obedience. The ensemble with their makeshift costumes and energetic movements sometimes give the flavor of a high school production where nothing goes as planned. That is the danger of too much interference with the text even if you get the laughs.
The parameters for infidelity to the text and the freedom that a director can take in the interpretation of a play are broad but they are not unlimited. Carroll went well beyond any limitation and showed no respect for the text. He sacrificed loyalty for the sake of laughter.
A comment made by Richard Bentley, a classicist, about Alexander Pope’s translation is a propos: “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” Nor is Tim Carroll’s production of Androcles and the Lion a play by Bernard Shaw.
Androcles and the Lion by Bernard Shaw continues in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Court Hose Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.