Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Rosin McBrinn
Reviewer: Cormac O’Brien
It was with much trepidation that this reviewer took his seat in the Abbey last night. Having been in love with George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House for nigh-on thirty years now, ever since an enlightened secondary-school teacher performed a miracle by bringing Shaw’s 1920 masterpiece to life for a group of disaffected 16-year-olds. Yet, this reviewer had never seen it performed. This was the same sort of nervous anticipation you get when Hollywood’s done a job on your favourite novel. Will they get it right? Will someone else’s interpretation match the picture conjured up all these years? It’s one of those situations that will go one of two ways. Either, it’s going to be a bitter anti-climax and the play will be ruined or, Shaw’s genius will be reaffirmed, discovering new aspects that can never be apparent from reading a play in a book.
Ten minutes into the performance it became apparent that the latter was the case. Thankfully, as the house lights came up at the end, it still only felt like ten minutes into the performance – no mean feat for a two-and-a-half-hour long show.
Heartbreak House is set on the eve of World War One, and the historical significance of the Abbey staging its first ever production of the play exactly a century after that war broke out is not lost in this wonderful rendering. And, of course, for an Irish audience, there is a double-resonance: not only do we bear witness to the decline of the British Empire – embodied by a feckless family of bohemian English aristocrats (imagine, if you will, the characters of Downton Abbey as hash smokers); at the start of its decline; but we’re also reminded of the many Irishmen who fought in the Great War.
But what really made the show was how director Rosin McBrinn foregrounded the sheer comic brilliance of the play. Yes, of course, the politics are present; as we were taught in school, these characters represent the Houses of Europe as their greedy colonialism and refusal to see ordinary people as anything but mere cannon fodder engendered a global conflict that killed millions. Aislín McGuckin’s Lady Utterwood, for instance, fabulously resplendent in Niamh Lunny’s sumptuous costumes, perfectly symbolises the British Upper Crust. Playing a woman who has ‘always been the mistress of government house’, McGuckin succinctly captures the Lady of Empire who was peeved at having to mix her own cocktails, because the butler had the impertinence to go off to war in order to keep her wealth intact.
But McBrinn’s skill in bringing the comedy to life was, for me, that elusive new aspect of the play that this reviewer never got from readings. In short, one never realised Heartbreak House was so laugh-out-loud funny. McBrinn creates a clever infusion of two theatrical traditions: she melds that late-19th Century music-hall roustabout, so popular when Shaw began his playwriting career, with the searing social realism of Ibsen who was, of course, Shaw’s rôle model. And so, as Kathy Kiera Clarke’s super-sultry Hessione Hushabye and Mark Lambert’s beautifully bumbling Captain Shotover, accompanied by a host of other hilariously serious performances, weave in and out of each other’s misplaced anxieties, they carry us along on a bouncing bubble of wit and repartee until – BANG! That famous ending, which I won’t spoiler here, comes like a bolt of lighting. And drags us, kicking and screaming, back to the very real and very unfunny horrors and terrors of war.
This is modern classic drama produced at its very best, performed by a superb ensemble of actors who were obviously revelling in their craft.
Go see it. Seriously.
Photo courtesy of The Abbey Theatre. Runs until 13th September