Major Barbara, Olivier Theatre, London

Hytner rethinks for a Shaw thing

Shaw has been well and truly whipped off the shelf at the National Theatre where a successful production of St Joan last summer is now followed by Nicholas Hytner's incisive revival of Major Barbara – the first venture in this year's Travelex £10 season. But though Hytner has evidently managed to conquer his distaste for Shaw, it's a relief to report that he hasn't undergone a wholesale conversion. His production revels in the play's argumentative energy and it does a most persuasive job in drawing out the emotional subtext of the debate, but it is also admirable for the honest scepticism with which it acknowledges the dangerous implications of Shaw's ideas.

Simon Russell Beale is cast against type as the indomitable arms tycoon, Andrew Undershaft, which is a neatly mischievous touch because the character himself is a robust exercise in reversing audience expectations. In a play about saving souls, we don't anticipate that a wealthy manufacturer of weapons will be presented as a fount of wisdom. The play turns on a wager between Undershaft and his long-estranged daughter Barbara, a Salvation Army zealot, to decide which of them is more effective in the redemption business. If he will visit her shelter, she will visit his cannon foundry.

For Undershaft, the fundamental crime is poverty; justice, truth, love and mercy are the luxuries of a rich, strong and safe life. The well-intentioned charity work of the Salvation Army merely gives people bread and treacle and dreams of heaven. His death factory pays for the social paradise of a model town and an existence that frees people for genuine engagement with spirituality.

From demonstrating to Barbara that her mission depends upon the donations of capitalists, such as whisky distillers, whose evil effects she has been bent on fighting, he manoeuvres to recruit her as preacher to his well-fed workers "whose souls are hungry because their bodies are full" and to train her Greek professor fiancé as his successor.

Russell Beale invests this self-made diabolical provocateur with a quiet, watchful, authority and a gravelly accent that betrays his East End origins. His power comes across in his steady stare and his menacing pauses and in the crude, gruff relish with which he delivers his taunting paradoxes. But you also see here his frustrated paternal yearning for Barbara, played with a glowing fervour by Hayley Atwell. He can't take his admiring eyes off her, but is too inhibited by the years of estrangement to make the physical contact for which he longs. Hytner valuably reinforces a sense of unresolved family issues complicating their intellectual quarrel.

The production negotiates with verve the Wildean drawing-room comedy of the first act (with Clare Higgins in hilarious form as the formidable, upper-crust mother and John Heffernan deliciously priggish as the conventional son) and the Dickensian humour of the second (with the working-class rogues who are playing on the idealistic gullibility of the Salvation Army by shamming conversion). In the difficult role of the professor of Greek, Paul Ready skilfully suggests the tension between moral revulsion of Undershaft and intellectual enjoyment of his outrageousness.

By the time we reach the last act, Undershaft has turned into a wholly unpalatable Shavian superman, spouting the belief that the only ballot paper that really governs is the one with a bullet in it and that history is made by those who have the courage to blow other people up. The idea that his weapons could be the means of effecting a beneficent revolution sounds odd, to put it mildly, coming from a man whose doctrine is to sell to the highest bidder. With a stage packed with rows of sinister missiles and the sound of offstage explosions, Hytner highlights the disingenuousness of Undershaft's challenge to the Professeor to "make war on war". Major Barbara was written in 1905. In less than a decade, the world would witness the carnage of the war that was supposed to end all wars.

To 15 May (020-7452 3000)

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