Major Barbara

Posted on: 28 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

An engaging and relevant production of George Bernard Shaw's witty play.


Few plays written over a century ago have quite such a resonance and topicality in our troubled times as George Bernard Shaw's ironic comedy Major Barbara, which is revived in a masterly new National Theatre production directed by Nicholas Hytner in the Olivier auditorium.

Andrew Undershaft is a millionaire arms manufacturer who loves money and despises poverty - "The Greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty...our first duty - a duty to which every other consideration should be sacrificed - is not to be poor." His estranged daughter, Barbara, on the other hand, works tirelessly for the poor at a Salvation Army shelter and sees her father as another soul to be saved. But when the Army needs funds to keep going, it is Undershaft who saves the day with a large cheque, forcing Barbara to examine her moral assumptions. Are they right to accept money that has been obtained by "death and destruction?"

Furthermore when Major Barbara agrees to take a tour of her father's factory, she is surprised to discover that the well-fed workers in their thriving model town make a devastating case for arms trade profits and a whole new set of ideals. For it is Undershaft's philosophy that "nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done."

This provocative, state-of-the-nation play confronts the big questions with brutal panache and in so doing provides a thrilling clash of ideas. Shaw is particularly adept at exploring the tensions between religion, wealth and power, benevolence and equality and the realities of war.

In Hytner's finely tuned production we get no sense of being lectured to, as has sometimes happened in the past. Indeed the comic cynicism, strong characterisation and timeless plot all mesh perfectly together to form a hugely satisfying whole, with a thing or two to teach us today in our so-called 'enlightened' 21 st century society.

Hytner, in particular, extracts a superb central performance from the current 'star' of the National, Simon Russell Beale, as the self-made war weapons maker Underhill, who revels in the fact that his power is unassailable above the control of governments. Hayley Atwell as the idealistic Major Barbara of the title, Clare Higgins as her haughty mother, Lady Britomart, and Paul Ready as Adolphus Cusins, a love-struck Greek professor, whose romantic inclinations are directed towards Major Barbara, are also first rate.

In all then a play of wit and wisdom that marks another triumph for the National.

Continues in repertory until 3rd July 2008.

Laurence Green

Booking Information

Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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