Arms and The Man by Bernard Shaw
at The Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
14 September – 31 October 2015
Reviewed by Nathan Lentern
TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF COMEDIC FARCE
George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man is perhaps the textbook example of the comedic farce. Meticulous details, scattered with apparent pointlessness among the first act crash and collide in the second and third to create an hysterical state of confusion and pandemonium. In the throes of the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885, Raina Petkoff, daughter of the aristocratic, affable yet simple Major Petkoff is engaged to the flamboyant idiot Major Sergius Saranoff. Her idyllic betrothal is unsettled when Swiss soldier Bluntschli, fighting as mercenary captain for the Serbian army, climbs through her bedroom window to escape his Bulgarian pursuers.
After overcoming her initial shock and patriotic instincts to turn Bluntschli over, Raina’s mistrust soon turns to sympathy then affection, setting in place the foundations of a classic love triangle. When peace is reached Bluntschli returns to Bulgaria to work with Majors Petkoff and Saranoff, bringing Raina and Bluntschli into close contact one more.
Saranoff meanwhile has a lingering eye of his own as indeed do betrothed servants Louka and Nicola and soon a love triangle has snowballed into an absurd yet touching romantic pentagon.
The simplicity off Major Petkoff, the fierceness of Mrs Petkoff, the impetuousness of Raina and buffoonery of Saranoff provide perfect fodder for Bluntschli’s dry wit as he swaggers his way through the chaos to the chagrin of Raina and the delight of the audience. Only servant Nicola, a more nuanced and sophisticated variation of the wisecracking butler trope seems to share Bluntschli’s gift of self-awareness.
When dealing with a script as adroit as Arms and the Man it is paramount to let the dialogue shine and the wit translate and in Richard Cotrell’s latest production he does so deftly. The timing, clarity and blocking is near perfect and ensures none off Shaw’s classic one-liners are spoiled and many moments of visual humour are added in without detracting from Shaw’s legendary prose
Andrea Demtriades captures Raina’s callow flourishes skilfully. Her comical attempts to adopt a deeper, more authoritative tone of voice and her teenage eye rolling juxtaposes neatly with the cocked eye brows and deadpan sarcasm of Mitchel Butel’s Bluntschli. As does Charlie Cousin’s Saranoff with his pompous head tossing and histrionic delivery.
Butel himself starts a little shakily. In the opening scene he plays an exhausted and terrified Bluntschli and Butel communicates this reasonably well with some agitated scurrying, drowsy stumbling and an at times a shrill and panicked tone. Although logical and convincing, on one or two occasions has the unfortunate consequence of undermining the sardonic tone which makes Bluntschli the irresistible character he is. However by the second act Bluntschli returns bathed, fed and rested, and his agitation is replaced with a charismatic suavity. The product is a delight to behold and Butel thrills the audience with his twinkly eyed cheek and condescending charm.
William Zappa is a warm and likeable duffer as Major Petkoff, Olivia Rose a headstrong and cynical maid and Brandon Burke as the servant Nicola is a master-class in subtle, understated humour.
The standout however is clearly Deborah Kennedy, perfectly cast to play the imperious matriarch Mrs Petkoff. Everything from a regal posture to a deep and refined inflection combines to create a great and terrifying performance. At times she need only enter the stage to receive howls of appreciation from the audience.
The three sets: Raina’s bedroom, the back garden at the Petkoff home and the library at the Petkoff house are all elegant and subtle. Employing generous quantities of calming whites, pale blues and pale greens they are handsome and complimentary without becoming a distraction.
There is a degree of responsibility involved in taking on Arms and the Man. Shaw’s enduring acclaim sets such a high bar, it would not be difficult to do it an injustice. But the Sydney Theatre Company rises to the task and has produced a stellar production of a true classic.
Nathan Lentern is a writer and performer.