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Theatre Reviews Shaw Festival 2019: Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married is a breezy and entertaining look at marriage

Steven Sutcliffe as Reginald Bridgenorth with the cast of Getting Married.

Emily Cooper/Handout

  • Title: Getting Married
  • Written by: Bernard Shaw
  • Director: Tanja Jacobs
  • Actors: Marla McLean, Martin Happer
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Royal George Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 13, 2019

rating

Getting Married has a reputation as one of Bernard Shaw’s talkier plays and that’s really saying something, given how talky the Irish playwright’s entire oeuvre is.

Shaw, defensively, subtitled it “a conversation” and then, later, “a disquisitory play.” In an article he wrote before its premiere in 1908, he said, “The characters will seem to the wretched critics to be simply a row of Shaws, all arguing with one another on totally uninteresting subjects.”

Having seen a pair of productions now at the Shaw Festival, 11 years apart, however, I find Getting Married one of the breeziest rather than windiest of Shaw plays, full of fun characters and amusing chatter that only occasionally lags. The ensemble comedy doesn’t pretend to be more than what it is – and so doesn’t ever let you down.

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On the morning of her wedding, Edith Bridgenorth (Katherine Gauthier, a fine new addition to the Shaw company) – the last unmarried daughter of Bishop Alfred Bridgenorth (Graeme Somerville) – has locked herself in her room to read a pamphlet about the terrible institution that she is signing up for.

Somehow, her fiancé, Cecil Sykes (Cameron Grant), has also at the last minute come across a book that explains what marriage actually entails and now has cold feet.

At the Bishop’s house, as the ceremony is delayed, the guests have gathered (in the kitchen, in director Tanja Jacobs’s production) to discuss this turn of events – and draw up an alternative marriage contract that will help Edith and Cecil go ahead with tying the knot.

All parties have their own concerns with marriage law as it is (Jacobs’s production has been transposed to 1950, visually, anyway), wherein a woman can’t get a divorce if her husband goes to jail for murder (Edith’s main issue), and a man is on the financial hook for his wife’s slander (Cecil’s problem).

There’s the bishop’s brother Reginald (Steven Sutcliffe), who wishes he didn’t have to punch his wife, Leo (Monice Peter), in the face at her request so that she could get a divorce and run away with a snob named St. John Hotchkiss (Ben Sanders, who excels at playing annoying twerps such as this one). Leo, for her part, would have ideally preferred to have been allowed to marry both men.

Then, there’s the bishop’s other brother, Boxer (Martin Happer), a very conventional military man who has proposed repeatedly to an independent woman named Lesbia (Claire Jullien), who’s upset by the law because she does not want a husband, but does want children.

As for the Bishop, he is, of course, a Shavian man of the cloth and so he argues the side of liberalized divorce and polygamy, because: “If we are going to discuss ethical questions, we must begin by giving the devil fair play.”

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In the second act, a much-talked-about clairvoyant mayoress, Mrs. Collins (Marla McLean, suitably seductive), nicknamed Polly, comes in all dressed in a diabolic red to shake things up. (The attractive costumes are by Shannon Lea Doyle and make up for her perplexingly proportioned set.)

Both times I’ve seen the play, I’ve had no idea what the devil is going on when Polly goes into a trance, but nevertheless have been mesmerized by her speech peering into the future.

Shaw seems to have caught a glimpse of the future when writing Getting Married, but not entirely understood what he saw. He’s named a character who’s almost but not quite a lesbian Lesbia, and another character who’s almost but not quite polyamorous Polly.

His essential argument is that religious marriage and civil marriage can only be considered separately – and that easier access to divorce would save marriage in the next generation.

This isn’t at all controversial or contrarian now, so the play isn’t exactly going to rustle any feathers. Nevertheless, it remains an entertaining excavation of the old institution.

Jacobs directs a stacked cast (I haven’t even mentioned Damien Atkins, or the increasingly indispensable Andrew Lawrie), but the funniest performance comes from Happer, who makes for a tremendously lovable dullard.

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An actor turned director, Jacobs mostly just lets the actors loose and allows Shaw’s 111-year-old verbal fireworks to dazzle. Just as well: The bits of physical comedy she’s added in are clumsy and a curtain-call dance goes on far longer than the applause likely ever will.

After a couple seasons of two-way theatre at the Shaw Festival, it seems we’ve swung fully back to directors who only have any fun during scene changes and act breaks. Though, we’re only a few shows into 2019, I suppose.

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