Aesop’s famous fable tells of a good-hearted run-away slave named Androcles who pulls out a thorn from a suffering lion’s paw, thereby earning a life-saving reward later when he is fed to the same lion by the Romans. There are numerous versions of the tale, with several radical changes. Shaw makes Androcles a tailor with Christian beliefs so that the playwright can then take issue with the subject of false Christians, though with a blend of the serious and the farcical. Tim Carroll’s professes “love and respect for the material, but with a complete absence of reverence.” But his production’s irreverence is counter-productive because although Shaw’s play is a mishmash of romantic comedy, social and religious satire, political commentary, children’s pantomime, and vaudevillian slapstick, it is not a trivial play for trivial people. It does not patronize its subject; in fact, it is an antidote to popular religious melodrama and Christian fairy tales. His Androcles is a silly man but a holy one, lacking, of course, Lavinia’s more sophisticated faith. In a 100-page preface that far exceeded the length of his script, Shaw warned that the play was not a comedy, but rather contained “matter for the most mature wisdom to ponder.”
Shaw’s moral passion was always sincere, but Tim Carroll’s production appears to give the lie to this fact. Though he has proved to be a truly innovative director with a fresh perspective (as in his admirable productions of Saint Joan this season and a gender-bending Twelfth Night in 2012 at the Globe in England) Carroll overindulges his interest in interactive theatre—where actors engage with an audience before the play proper begins—and this device now becomes a cliché. Oh, what fun to see Neil Barclay or Patrick Galligan or Patty Jamieson or Michael Therriault, for example, chatting and joking with audience members, only to don the smattering of a costume and pretend to be a Shavian character the next moment. Trouble is the switch from chitchat to role-playing is unconvincing. Everything is treated as a mischievous romp—a sort of romper room Shaw for children of most ages. Four audience members are selected at random by an emcee (a different actor each performance) to toss colour-coded balls on a whim at a character, with each colour representing a different action prompting the actor who receives it to tell a personal story or sing a song, etc. But this arbitrary intrusion is just that: an intrusion that gets in the way of the narrative and of Shaw’s didactic purpose by erasing the distinction between the actor as person and the actor as character.
The overt symbolism (with four Christian converts representing various aspects of faith) is treated as a joke, though Julia Course makes an appealing, smart Lavinia, and Kyle Blair an eloquent Captain. Jeff Irving overdoes the hunky muscular machismo of Ferrovius, but he is amusing, as is Michael Therriault as the moral opportunist Spintho, though with, perhaps, a shade less conviction in his zealotry. Elsewhere, there is a fine, caricatural performance by Jenny L. Wright as Megaera, Androcles’s nagging wife, and an excellent Emperor by resonant Neil Barclay. But after all the irritating, maddening jocularity and an embarrassing lion played by an audience member who would be over-parted in the role even in “Pyramus and Thisby,” it is difficult to get the full measure of Shaw’s sharp message about propaganda (especially religious) as a tool of suppression. I am not advocating a pulpit-thumping Shaw; I am merely condemning a sloppy exercise that is often an intolerable aesthetic persecution.
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