In late-19th-century England a philanderer was the polite term for man who was bangin’ a bunch of chicks at the same time. This year the Shaw Festival presents the George Bernard Shaw play which addresses this very subject.
The Philanderer opens with Leonard (Ben Carlson) and Grace (Deborah Hay) deep in the throws of an amorous embrace. Leonard wants to marry Grace, though she has some reservations about his checkered past. While he’s in the midst of reassuring her that he’s a changed man, Julia (Nicole Underhay), one of his past dalliances, shows up to say that she is not willing to give him up and will keep him at any cost. When the fathers of the two aforementioned ladies turn up, Mr Cuthbertson (Norman Browning) and Col Craven (Peter Hutt), Leonard and Julia must concoct a series of elaborate lies to cover their history together.
Shaw wrote the play in 1893 during a period of major social change; that same year, women in New Zealand became the first in the world to have the right to vote. Society was in the midst of a hot debate about the role the “fairer sex” should play in the world and the notion of the new woman was gaining popularity. The idea that women could be intellectual, independent and sexually autonomous was met with considerable opposition from those who preferred females to remain subservient.
All of the characters in the play are connected through a private members establishment called the Ibsen Club, which admits both male and female members &mdash something virtually unheard of at the time. In order to avoid the pitfalls associated with clubs of mixed membership, the Ibsen Club has established strict rules for those who want to join. Women pledging membership must be certified by two existing members to be unwomanly women. Similarly men joining must be certified to be unmanly men.
Intended as tongue-in-cheek comment about gender issues when the play was written, Shaw’s discussion of behavioural stereotypes and segregated spaces finds new relevance in today’s world where women are kicked off of patios at gay bars and trans men are denied entry at male-only leather parties.
Shaw is paying homage here to Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen whose plays about the emancipation of women caused riots when they were performed decades earlier. While Ibsen used the dramatic force of 19th-century realism to foist his political views onto the stage, Shaw has taken a lighter tone with his work. Beneath the comic and occasionally almost farcical antics of his characters lurks a harsh social critique about gender roles and the expression of sexuality in his time.
Carlson is delightful in the lead role and truly captures the conflict his character feels being torn between two women. Though he’d be considered a bit of a player by today’s standards (not to mention those of Shaw’s time) you can’t help but feel for him, as you watch him dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole with his various lies and cover-ups.
Underhay and Hay make a perfect contrast as romantic rivals &mdash Underhay’s over-the-top theatrics versus Hay’s steely calm. Browning and Hutt are a fine comic duo as the fathers. The cast is rounded out by Nicola Correia-Damude as Julia’s protofeminist sister Sylvia and, in a hilarious turn, Peter Krantz as the bumbling Dr Paramore.
Judith Bowden has created a wonderfully functional set for the actors to storm about and throw their various tantrums on. The tiny Royal George Theatre can be a tricky space to design in because of its existing architecture, but Bowden has blended her design with the rest of the building so seamlessly that you feel like you’re sitting in the same room with the actors.
Director Alisa Palmer has staged a razor-sharp production with the ensemble cast landing all of their notes with exquisite precision. Not a moment is over- or underplayed and she manages to find whole people inside characters that could become mere sketches under a less apt director’s watch. This kind of comedy can fail miserably in the wrong hands, but the talented cast grabs the material by the throat and really goes for it with spectacular results. The Philanderer is a delightful and unexpected surprise at the festival this year. Catch it while you can.