- Over the Falls in a Golden Barrel:The Shaw Fest Celebrates
Someone looking superficially at Leonard Conolly's color-photo-filled account of the Shaw Festival's first half-century would judge it to be a fine coffee-table companion for theater pilgrims to the annual Niagara-on-the Lake repertory presentation of plays by Shaw and by his contemporaries and successors. That someone, however, would have seriously underestimated the book, for though it is indeed replete with handsome color and black-and-white photos—selected and displayed beautifully by the book's designer, Scott McKowen—that showcase the rich and compellingly staged play-productions at the Canadian Festival, the volume is much more than a trophy book. It is a thoroughly researched, detailed, and well-written survey of the company's founding, the successes, failures, fights, and triumphs of its successive artistic directors from 1963 to 2011: Andrew Allan, Barry Morse, Paxton Whitehead, Tony van Bridge, Richard Kirschner, Leslie Yeo, Christopher Newton, and Jackie Maxwell. It is a story told with a sense of drama and with an amusing feel for the personalities involved. The author justifies his book by claiming that its subject is "one of the great theatre companies of the English speaking world." In that he is quite right.
For too long the Shaw Festival has gone unheralded for what it is: a place where theatergoers may see in three excellent theaters (the Courthouse, the Royal George, and the resplendent Festival Theatre) productions of British, American, and Canadian plays written between 1850 and the present, as well as the formidable plays of Bernard Shaw, the only playwright of the period to have produced a large enough number of major plays to sustain two or three audience-attracting productions every single year of those fifty years the Festival has existed. The productions are mounted interestingly and arrestingly by—for the most part—talented directors and designers, and performed by a first-rate ensemble of highly effective actors, some of them like Ben Carlson (alas, now decamped) and Ben Campbell (still encamped, hurrah) rising to the highest level of acting in New York or London. To attend Shaw's plays at the Shaw Festival is to see audiences having a whale of a time, to see them engaged with the plays every minute: they gasp at Shaw's outspoken characters; they follow every word and idea and emotion of the characters; above all, they laugh uproariously at Shaw's comical vision of life and humanity and his good-natured humor, even as he is transferring the arguments he has had with himself from his head to the audience's heads. I speak not from report but as a repeat witness to what I describe. It is to be hoped dearly that the most recent decision of [End Page 187] the current artistic director, not to perform a Shaw play at the largest of the three theaters, the Festival Theatre, is a temporary mental aberration on her part, and not the setting of a pattern for the future.
The cover photo of the book shows Tara Rosling as Saint Joan (in the 2007 production of the play) listening to her "voices"; it is most appropriate, not to mention highly dramatic and evocative, as the first photo the reader encounters, because Brian Doherty, whose brainchild the Shaw Festival was, had to have had something of Joan's visionary madness to have conceived of the idea. It was Doherty who proposed to his associates having Shaw as the center of a theater festival in the small but picturesque town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario, just on the other side of the Falls, and so, near enough to the United States to draw Americans (the Festival attendees are about 40 percent American). The associates considered other playwrights as possibilities—Marlowe, Wilde, Maugham, and O'Neill—luckily they were all rejected in favor of Shaw. Good choice, for can you imagine a theater festival in which the five or six plays by Marlowe or Wilde were...