Wartime farce retains message 100 years later

Shaw classic opens at McPherson Theatre

Christine Willes

Some things, as they say, bear repeating.

For director Glynis Leyshon, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and The Man is worthy of the expression.

The wartime farce which runs until June 17 at the McPherson Playhouse, is the latest classic brought to the stage by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. Though much has evolved around how wars are fought since Shaw penned the play in 1898, the idealization of war and the cult of the warrior hero rings true today, Leyshon said.

“It’s Shaw poking fun at the whole romanticizing of war and the idea that heroism is brave, but rather it’s not,” Leyshon said. “It’s real and scary and frightening and something that we should take entirely seriously.”

Set during the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, Arms and The Man follows a young woman torn between a dashing war hero and and a soldier who would rather see chocolates over bullets on the battlefield.

As an early work of Shaw’s with a quick-moving plot, Leyshon considers Arms and The Man, an easy introduction to the playwright, even for the most novice of audiences. And for those up on the classics, it’s a rare opportunity to see Shaw on stage in Victoria.

The play is a departure from the veteran director’s last work – God of Carnage, a contemporary comedy “of manners, without manners,” staged this spring at The Belfry Theatre, where Leyshon served as artistic director for 11 years – though Leyshon is more than well-acquainted with Arms and The Man.

Leyshon has viewed the play from three vantage points, first as an audience member at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., then as a programmer at the Vancouver Playhouse.

“It has that wonderful language of Shaw, and his wit, but it also has something to say to all of us today. It’s one of those timeless pieces that can make us laugh and have a good time, but there’s a truth to that message at the heart of the play that’s still very valid for us all,” Leyshon said. “Getting a chance to do it again here for Blue Bridge is very exciting for me.”

The play’s emphasis on divisiveness of nationalism has remained just as originally intended, Leyshon said.

The first time she saw Arms and The Man, Leyshon felt removed from some of the details in the names, such as the Serbians and the Balkans.

“Unfortunately with all of the conflict in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia, the idea that there are wars in the Balkans … is all too present with us.”

Without undermining the deeper social commentary, she appreciates the play for some of its perhaps more widely accessible attributes.

“(Shaw) really is having a good time as a young playwright, having fun with all of the operetta form, the dashing, gallant hero and the elevated, flowery language,” she said. “It’s more tongue-in-cheek and has a lot more genuine sense of farce than a lot of his later and more serious work.”

Under Leyshon’s direction are Dylan Smith of Blue Bridge’s inaugural production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Stratford Festival lead Amanda Lisman. Vanessa Holmes, Jay Hindle, Brian Linds, Christine Willes and Jacob Richmond round out the cast.

Tickets for Arms and The Man are available through the Royal & McPherson box office at 250-386-6121 or rmts.bc.ca.

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