Review: John Bull’s Other Island

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Review: John Bull’s Other Island ✭✭✭✭✩

by G.B. Shaw, directed by Christopher Newton

Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake July 10-October 9, 2010

Photo: Graeme Somerville (Larry Doyle) and Severn Thompson (Nora). ©Emily Cooper.

The Shaw Festival has revived Shaw’s Irish play “John Bull’s Other Island” in an excellent production directed by the Festival’s former  Artistic Director Christopher Newton.  The play may focus on English-Irish relations but Newton emphasizes its broader concerns with colonization, exploitation, globalization, national identity and land development.  In this way Shaw’s 1904 play seems even more relevant now than it did on its last appearance in 1998. 

“John Bull” is a very unusual work.  It plays with the notion of national stereotypes, even bringing on a character acting the part of a “stage Irishman” of the period whom the central English character of the play, of course, mistakes for the real thing.  Just as Shaw plays with character stereotypes he also plays with genre.  “John Bull” is a comedy without a happy ending.  The man who should receive his comeuppance does not, and the couple we hope will get together also do not.  Not far beneath the comedy of the play is the notion that there is no happy ending for a country like Ireland. 

[….] [a paragraph of plot outline is omitted here]

The irony found everywhere in the play is how the Englishman Broadbent falls in love with Ireland and its physical embodiment in Nora while the Irishman Doyle is only reminded of the provincialism, superstition and impracticality of the people that drove him to England.  Under Christopher Newton’s direction a second irony is made far more apparent than it was in the Shaw’s previous revival of the play in 1998.  Newton makes abundantly clear that Broadbent only falls in love with his preconceived romantic notion of Ireland and its people, never with the real thing.  In Act 1 Broadbent mistakes Timothy Haffigan, a man who playacts a stage Irishman fulfilling every possible stereotype, as the real thing. Though Doyle berates him about this error, it has no effect and everything Broadbent sees in Ireland confirms his patronizing view of its inherent quaintness and need for British practicality and ingenuity.

Broadbent appreciates all the Irish landscapes before not for their inherent beauty but for the possibilities they offer for development into future resorts and gold courses.  We may know nothing of the “Irish Question” that looms large in this 1904 play when all of Ireland was ruled directly by the British Parliament.  (Northern Ireland was not partitioned from the rest of Ireland until 1921.)  But we do all understand the ideas of paternalism, colonialism, land development and exploitation that Broadbent so cheerfully and unconsciously embodies.  Newton’s emphasis on this makes a play that can seem a curiosity into a work of surprising relevance.  Broadbent’s unresistable rise to success, because the Irish cannot convince themselves to unite against him, turns this play into a very dark comedy indeed. [Note: The odd use of “unresistable rise” here is probably a reference to a later German play about Hitler called “The Resistable Rise or Arturo Ui.”]

William Schmuck’s design supports Newton’s view.  After the initial scene in the engineers‘ offices in London, the rest of the action takes place against a backdrop of an Irish landscape that deliberately looks like a painting.  Under Louise Guinand’s atmospheric lighting, hillocks on stage that is still painted as the wooden flooring of the office are created before our eyes by furniture piled up in various ways and concealed with square-quilted coverlets in shades of green.  We thus are in an artificial, imagined Ireland throughout the play.

There is not a weak link in the cast.  Benedict Campbell is hilarious as Broadbent, a man so caught up in his own view of what Ireland is that the reality of the place never impinges on his fantasy.  He is delightfully unaware that everyone else in the play sees through him.  Graeme Somerville conveys Doyle’s complex personality made up of self-loathing for his Irish background and pride in his assiduously acquired English ways.  He is excellent at showing the disgust Doyle feels when once back on Irish soil he occasionally lapses into his old Irish.  This is especially evident in a wonderful scene between him and Nora when he is torn between winning her away from Broadbent and warning her away from himself.  It is clearly his internal conflict that leads them to quarrel just when Nora is hoping for some expression of feeling from him.  “Oh, that's so Irish! Irish both of us to the backbone,” he rails against himself.

Severn Thompson is a lovely Nora Reilly, who seems to approach life with hope balanced against expected disappointment.  She has a radiance and delicacy that far outweighs her status as an heiress.  In Newton’s staging Doyle’s loss of Nora to Broadbent comes across as a tragedy for both of the Irish.  The fourth major character is Peter Keegan, a defrocked Catholic priest, still honoured by the locals for his “magic” powers of blessing, whose studies of other religions and solitary life have given him a fundamental understanding of the world far beyond the superficial concerns of everyone else in the play.  Jim Mezon gives a magisterial performance as Keegan.  His instantly commanding presence and the intensity of his speech open up deeper perspectives with which to view the action.  For what seems to be a satiric comedy it is highly unusual to have a character like Keegan announce that our life on earth is hell.  He prophesies to Broadbent that Ireland will not always be viewed as a place to exploit for its raw materials: “[T]he day may come when these islands shall live by the quality of their men rather than by the abundance of their minerals.”  Mezon delivers Keegan’s final peroration with the marvellous sense that his present hearers may not understand him now though they may in future.  Assuming a God’s-eye view, he proclaims, “For four wicked centuries the world has dreamed this foolish dream of efficiency; and the end is not yet. But the end will come.” 

The supporting cast provides a set of vivid portraits of the Roscullen locals.  Guy Bannerman is Cornelius Doyle, Larry’s father, who still does not understand his son’s actions.  Mary Haney is Larry’s straight-laced Aunt Judy.  Patrick McManus is the hotheaded Barney Doran, Jonathan Widdifield the dimwitted and superstitious Patsy Farrell and  Thom Marriott the supercilious Father Dempsey.  David Schurmann plays Broadbent’s English valet Hodson, who seems all propriety except in a fine scene when left alone with Matthew Haffigan also played by Ric Reid.  When Haffigan assumes that Hodson has an easy job, Hodson drops is RP accent for his native Cockney and lets the Irishman know that there are people as oppressed in England as in Ireland and how his family fought its way up so that Hodson could have such a position.  Schurmann instant transformation from propriety to fierce indignation is one of the many superlative moments of fine acting that elevate and add complexity to the tone of the play.  

This the only the Shaw’s fourth production of “John Bull’s Other Island” in 49 seasons and it may be its best so far.  Funny and filled with a host of unexpectedly timely insights, this is a production any fan of Shaw or anyone interested in the workings of economics in history should make every effort to see.    

©Christopher Hoile


John Bull's Other Island: Shaw revisits Ireland, myth and reality

By J. Kelly Nestruck Published Monday, Jul. 12 2010

For The Globe and Mail (Canadian Newspaper)

John Bull's Other Island

  • Written by Bernard Shaw

  • Directed by Christopher Newton

  • Starring Graeme Somerville, Benedict Campbell

  • At the Shaw Festival

  • in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

No one ever went broke underestimating the sentimental nationalism of the Irish diaspora.

Among the innumerable items sold to make a buck from idealized images of Ireland as a poet-filled paradise, there is a popular poster called Irish Writers that is marketed especially to folks who haven't read any. It features black-and-white photos of the likes of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Bernard Shaw with quotations from their work printed in a Celtic font underneath.

When, like many Canadians with Irish heritage, I went through a phase in my early teens of believing my soul belonged to a country I had never visited, this poster hung on the wall above my bed. I recall that under the picture of Shaw, looking old, wise and mischievous, was a line that I assumed spoke to the innate artistic talent of those born on the Emerald Isle: "An Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination."

Well, whoever put together that poster had a real puckish sense of humour - repurposing one of the most cynical lines from John Bull's Other Island as a romantic one, using a quotation from a play that demolishes Irish stereotypes to reinforce them.

In Shaw's 1904 comedy, getting a thoughtful and thorough production at the Shaw Festival, English civil engineer Tom Broadbent (Benedict Campbell) heads off to a small Irish town called Roscullen to develop some land, dragging along his reluctant Irish-born partner, Larry Doyle (Graeme Somerville).

Broadbent has a misty-eyed view of Ireland, while Doyle, who was raised in Roscullen and has been exiled in London for 18 years, has an equally skewed opinion of his hometown as a "hell of littleness and monotony."

When Broadbent refuses to believe that Doyle's heart doesn't yearn for home as much as any other Irishman abroad, Doyle erupts: "Never mind my heart: An Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination. How many of those millions that have left Ireland have ever come back or wanted to come back?"

John Bull's Other Island, Shaw's only major play set in the country of his birth, is a dramatic illustration of the tension between the sentimental or cynical images of a country and a culture and its realities. It's as full of discussion and debate as any of Shaw's works, but the arguments seem more serious than usual as if the Irish question was one that Shaw was emotionally, not just intellectually, invested in.

Many of the specific talking points may have lost their relevance, but the overall themes are as strong as ever - and quite universal. How a country sees itself, how the world sees it and how it actually is are certainly questions that Canadians struggle with.

Director Christopher Newton's precise production has a strong grip on the ideas, but works well as drama too because he clearly connects the thematic dots to the relationship between Doyle and Nora Reilly (Severn Thompson), the girl he left behind. These two also struggle with the gulf between romance and reality, their memories and prejudices of one another, frustratingly, keeping them from connecting when they reunite. Somerville and Thompson have strong chemistry and, through deep and detailed performances where much is communicated through silence, their characters' bullheaded failure to come together wrenches the heart.

[. . . .] (A paragraph of plot spoilers omitted here.)

Among the inhabitants of Roscullen, Jim Mezon is suitably enigmatic as an ex-priest who wanders the hillside telling uncomfortable truths. Ric Reid, Patrick McManus and Mary Haney fill out the village well.

Newton's production, elegantly designed by William Schmuck, avoids too many longueurs - having two intermissions was a stroke of genius. While it loses a bit of steam at the end, it's about as good as a faithful representation of this thought-provoking play could be.

John Bull's Other Island runs at the Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until Oct. 9.

Theatre Review John Bull's Other Island

Tricycle Theatre, London

    • By Michael Billington for The Guardian, Monday 15 September 2003

The Irish poet George Russell called George Bernard Shaw "a suffering, sensitive soul" - a point perfectly proved by this rarely seen play dating from 1904. Beneath its satire on Anglo-Saxon and Irish attitudes and its assault on entrepreneurial capitalism lies a deep vein of grief that is quintessentially Shavian.

In truth, Shaw's robust jocularity is sometimes a bit heavy-handed. We watch, with polite amusement, as two civil engineers descend on the rural community of Rosscullen to set up an idealised garden city. Broadbent, the bluff Englishman, turns out to be a closet romantic who proposes to the local heiress and offers himself as a Home Rule parliamentary candidate. His partner Doyle, an Anglicised Irishman, laments his fellow-countrymen's irresolute dreaming and victim culture. All this is good paradoxical fun, but a touch dated in the age of the Emerald Tiger and Ireland's embrace of the single currency.

The heart of Shaw's play lies in the extraordinary character of Peter Keegan, a defrocked priest who sees the world as a place of "torment and penance" and uses feigned madness as a mask for profound truths. Keegan strikes me as a creation of genius in that he combines estrangement from the world with a devastating economic critique. At the play's haunting, elegiac close, he unpicks capitalism's "foolish dream of efficiency" and the consequences of buccaneering enterprise while painting a vision of a perfect universe that brings a lump to the throat.

Long characterised as a didactic brainbox, Shaw, at his best, was a displaced poet. This is shown in Dominic Dromgoole's production by the use of Wagnerian motifs and by Niall Buggy's transcendent performance as Keegan. With his lilting tones and boyish, well-scrubbed features, Buggy suggests a tragic saint who is ill at ease in a world he sees as a choice between hell and purgatory. But when he impartially attacks the Englishman - "so clever in your foolishness and this Irishman so foolish in his cleverness" - you realise that the character of the visionary outsider is a revealing Shavian self-portrait.

Charles Edwards sensibly plays Broadbent as a handsome dasher rather than a Punch caricature. Gerrard McArthur lends Doyle a fine feverish neurosis, and there is good support from Catherine Walker as the prized heiress and John Dougall as a fake Irishman who has learned his lingo from the halls. What makes the play endure, though, is less Shaw's satiric puncturing of Anglo-Irish mutual misconceptions than his Beckettian empathy with human suffering.

Review: John Bull’s Other Island

July 27, 1998 | 12:00AM PT By Mira Friedlander

If it weren't for tiny outdated details, one could swear that George Bernard Shaw were writing "John Bull's Other Island" today, rather than in 1904.

Bottom of Form

The rollicking comedy about an Englishman who decides he can cure all of Ireland’s ills through the building of a giant golf resort not only foreshadows today’s raging obsession with land development and real estate, but it also paints a rather pointed portrait of the paternalistic approach British leaders have traditionally adopted toward Ireland.

Jim Mezon’s production signals those comparisons while focusing on the play’s cheekiness as a hugely enjoyable romp, opting for sharp and arresting characterizations over ideology. Because of this there is no time (and no need) to dwell on the rather thin and improbable plot, or to get entangled in Shaw’s penchant for wordy political speeches.

Mezon, who came up through the company as one its best leading actors and turned to directing some seasons ago, has mounted a production that exemplifies the fest’s particular strength: presenting Shaw’s humanity and ideas in a way that avoids pedantic or stodgy staging.

That’s not always easy in this play, which includes lengthy discussions on the merits of Home Rule and the ability of Ireland to self-govern but narrowly misses drawing its characters as caricatures, thereby robbing them of serious motivation.

The cast handles these contradictions well: David Schurmann, as the Englishman Tom Broadbent, is Monty Pythonesque in his thick, sublimely self-confident manner that is totally (obliviously) at odds with the Ireland he is so dotty about. Blair Williams, as his business partner Larry Doyle, is the Irishman who left home and resists going back; Williams is amazingly affecting in a part that is more political foil than human being.

The supporting roles are beautifully drawn, each filled with detailed affection and intelligence. [. . . .] Peter Hutt is eloquent and eerie as the defrocked clergyman who sees through Broadbent, and Alison Woolridge’s Nora, the Irish lass [. . .], is a counterpoint to the rambunctiously relentless action as she angrily accepts the restrictions of her class and status as a female.

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