Major Barbara was written by Shaw in 1905 and tells the story of an unusual family, the Undershafts. Andrew Undershaft has been estranged from the family since his children were infants and has taken no part in their up bringing, which has been left solely in the capable hands of Lady Britomat Undershaft. Andrew Undershaft is a millionaire, having made his money from munitions and the machines of war. One of his three children, Barbara is a Major in the Salvation Army, and spends her time with the poor on the streets of London, converting them to Christianity. When Lady Britomat introduces Andrew back into the family to help with their finances, Andrews becomes fascinated with the motivation of his daughter, the Major, and strikes a deal with her, to spend one day in her world, if she will do the same in his.
As with many of Shaw’s plays, this piece is heavy with complex moral issues, that delve into the constructs of modern society and were designed to make people think about the world around them in new ways. This play is one of Shaw’s ‘discussion plays’ that feature a series of conversations between the characters dealing with morality and religion. Undershafts’ millions are used to undermine the opinions and motivations of even the most pious of characters, and change them radically through the play.
While the play is hugely ambitious and well written, it is difficult for the actors to add depth to their characters, as they are mainly used as devices to argue both sides of whatever moral issue is at hand. Having said that, there are a number of impressive performances; Eleanor Methven is always hugely entertaining and her performance as the matriarch of the family enriches the early scenes. Paul McGann (Whitnail and I) embraces the role of the pompous and domineering Andrew Undershaft, and plays the Machiavellian rouge with style. The set design is impressive, and the stage works well for the variety of scenes required, including a dramatic transformation for the final act.
This is an entertaining and well acted play and raises a number of complicated issues and holds the attention of the audience throughout. There is a huge amount of ground covered in the various debates between the characters, and it is quite a demanding play, but is rewarding in equal measure.
Duration – Approx 3 hours with a 15 minute interval.
Major Barbara runs at the Abbey Theatre until September 21st, with tickets at €13 – €45.
Ian Lloyd Anderson – Bill Walker
Fiona Bell – Mrs. Baines
Killian Burke – Stephen
Gerard Byrne – Morrison
Clare Dunne – Barbara
Liz Fitzgibbon – Sarah
Emmet Kirwan – Bronterre O’Brien Price
Aonghus Óg McAnally – Charles Lomax
Paul McGann – Undershaft
Chris McHallem – Peter Shirley
Eleanor Methven – Lady Britomart
Caoimhe O’Malley – Jenny Hill
Marty Rea – Adolphus Cusins
Stephen Swift – Bilton
Ali White – Rummy Mitchens
Annabelle Comyn – Director
Paul O’Mahony – Set Design
Joan O’Clery – Costume Design
Chahine Yavroyan – Lighting Design
Philip Stewart – Original Music and Sound Design
Donal O’ Farrell – Fight Director