The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-theLake, Ontario, began in 1962 in the Assembly Rooms of the Court House with eight weekend performances of Don Juan and Candida. Forty-one years on it runs from the end of April to the beginning of November, catering for a wide range of tastes in three theatres with three clearly defined identities. Today the $23 million festival is the mainstay of the local economy.
The Festival's mandate is the plays of Bernard Shaw, plays written during his lifetime and plays written about the period, which means that Jackie Maxwell, the artistic director, can produce any play which was performed or is set between 1856 and 1950, the years of the playwright's birth and death.
On the main stage, a modern, proscenium arched theatre, seating 869, the Festival does its big productions. The major Shavian play this year is Misalliance, a treatise on parents and children, which the director. Neil Munro, perversely sets in a debating chamber. There are two lecterns at which the actors occasionally stand and read or refer to their scripts. It is very distracting and gets in the way of the comedy.
I much prefer Michel Marc Bouchard's The Coronation Voyage, an anti-colonial allegory about sacrifice and forgiveness, set aboard a luxury ocean liner bound for England and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. An infamous Montreal crime chief (Jim Mezon, a dangerous presence) is fleeing the country with his two sons and needs forged passports. A diplomat (Peter Krantz, very smooth-spoken) offers them at a price — the seduction of his 14year-old son. Also travelling are a Quebec minister and his wife. Two of their sons died in a massacre at Dieppe in World War Two. A third son lost his limbs. The deeply disturbed wife (skilfully acted by Donna Belleville), is cast as French Canada's conscience and has a long denunciation of the cover-up. Bouchard's manifesto is explicit: never forget and never forgive. Also on board ship is the Mafioso's biographer, who turns history into instant romantic and melodramatic fiction. Jackie Maxwell's production, beautifully designed by Ken MacDonald and dramatically lit by Alan Brodie, is excellent. The acting is first-rate throughout.
The Court House Theatre, on the converted top floor of the historic building is an intimate 327-seater with a prominent thrust stage. Here. the Festival puts on its more challenging works. I enjoy feminist Cecily Hamilton's Diana of Dobson's. a light and once topical romantic comedy with a dash of socialism, which has not been seen in England since its premiere in 1908. Diana works a fourteen-hour day in a highclass emporium for five shillings a week. A distant cousin unexpectedly leaves her f300. which she blows in one month on pretty clothes and travel. Whilst staying in a hotel in the Alps, masquerading as a rich widow. she falls in love with an ex-guardsman, who is unable to live on his £600 allowance and is looking for a rich wife to keep him. Only in a sentimental play could an intelligent heroine end up marrying such a duffer. But it's the ending the audience wants and perhaps it's not as sentimental as it at first seems. The choice for women of Diana's class in the Victorian/Edwardian era is stark: shop assistant, domestic service or prostitution. Marriage is an economic necessity.
Widowers' Houses, Shaw's remarkable first play about slum landlords, a powerful indictment of the corruption and the hypocrisy of the ruling classes, is acted as if it were an unpleasant play by Strindberg. Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, set during the Troubles in Ireland and a characteristic ironic mix of farce and tragedy, needs a bigger theatre and better sets. Brien Friel's bittersweet Afterplay, which revisits Chekhov, only works for audiences who know The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya really well.
The Royal George Theatre is a miniature Edwardian opera house built in 1913, seating 328. Here the Festival puts on its most accessible works, mini-musicals and thrillers. Blood Relations, Sharon Pollock's psychodrama is about Lizzie Borden, who killed her father and stepmother with an axe and got away with it. Lizzie and her lover, an actress, re-enact the events leading up to the murder. A gripping story is given a twist by having Lizzie (Laurie Patton) playing the family maid and the actress (Jane Perry) playing Lizzie.
The Festival always puts on a light and frothy musical for the tourists. On The Twentieth Century, with music by Cy Coleman and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is set aboard America's most glamorous train and is pure escapism. Happy End, the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical, which had a stormy premiere in 1928 and lasted only two days, is made of sterner stuff. The book, a satire on American crime, religion and big business, opens with a denunciation of Rockfeller, Ford and JP Morgan and ends with the proposal that the Church and organised crime should unite against capitalism. The score, which includes such classics as "The Bilbao Song" and "Surabaya Johnnie", is sublime.
For those of you who would like to combine a holiday with theatre-going I have no hesitation in recommending a visit to Niagara-on-theLake and the Shaw Festival. The town is charming, the lake and surrounding countryside are beautiful. Niagara Falls is but 20 minutes away.