Plot: Major Barbara (Hayley Atwell) works tirelessly for the poor at a Salvation Army shelter until a large but morally dubious donation is welcomed from her estranged father Andrew Undershaft, (Simon Russell Beale) a millionaire weapons manufacturer. But when she visits the factory itself, the well-fed workers in their thriving model town make a devastating case for arms trade profits and a whole new set of ideals.
This is my first time to watch the inimitable Simon Russell Beale on stage although I have seen him in a couple of made for tv films such as Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time where he played the enigmatic but awkward Widmerpool which earned him a BAFTA. Mr. Russell Beale is truly larger than life and I can now comprehend as to why he is dubbed -now let me get this right- by The Independent as “the greatest stage actor of his generation”. In a recent article from the Times, he is fast in garnering the most brownie points as “the perfect actor to have ever played Hamlet”. Now, I have yet to see him in a Shakespeare production (the horror! I know, I missed them all!) but I have managed to get tickets for Much Ado About Nothing on March 17.
Going back to this production, it was very clear that Russell Beale owned it. His Undershaft was not overdone, he played it quite subtly well, and it seems like with Russell Beale, less is more. And with the intelligent actor that he is, he used that again wonderfully here. Having been reunited with his family, and seeing that he has got more in common with Barbara, you can palpably feel this quiet admiration of a father to his daughter without a barrage of words, but just silent approval, for love, even in silence can still be heard.
The rest of the company were just as compelling particularly Claire Higgins as the Undershaft matriarch, her opening scene with John Heffernan unforgettable, and was reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell. Hayley Atwell did quite well as the zealous savior of souls, but it’s not her fault that Barbara is a one dimensional character, I also thought she became more interesting in the final act. What I have to give the direction its due respect and recognition is the staging of the Undershaft & Lazarus weapons factory with rows and rows of missiles that quite expectedly drew an applause of recognition from the audience. The use of sound effects depicting the Great War added a chilling effect to this brilliant, and what could be considered as Shaw’s greatest literary work. Thanks to Nicholas Hytner having gotten over his Shaw skepticism.
Major Barbara: 4/5
Playing at the National Theatre until May 15