A hundred years ago, in Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw tackled the big issues of his day, in particular the arms industry and those who profit from mutilation and murder. When, by the final act of Greg Hersov's production at the Royal Exchange, the firearms are manoeuvred into position, the wing-tip of an aerial battleship edged on to the stage, and the bodies of dummy soldiers strewn around the ground, the focus of Shaw's concerns are well and truly ours. Global terrorism, ethical arms policy, the rights and wrongs of religion, the various interpretations of morality - they're all timeless issues, even though the play is set in 1906.
As the debate (rather than the action, of which there's not much) unfolds, they are examined, with Shaw's usual wit, irony and pleasure with words, from every angle. They're scrutinised from the confines of the old prejudices of politics, religion and morality, and from the more modern viewpoints of the capitalists and military industrialists, determined to destroy the old and inaugurate the new - those with the will to kill, such as Sir Andrew Undershaft.
We encounter Undershaft when, needing to secure her children's future, Lady Britomart invites him to meet his long-estranged children, over whose identity he is hopelessly, and amusingly, confused. It's his eldest daughter, Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army, who makes the strongest impression. She's intent on saving her father's soul; he, in exchange, offers his gospel of money and gunpowder. Father and daughter strike a bargain to visit each other's work - hers a shelter, set up in this production under a neon-lit banner saying "Jesus Saves"; his the armoury where an idyllic community for the workers has been erected in the shadow of explosives. The competition is on for the other's soul and the true path of salvation.
Emma Cunniffe captures the passion of Major Barbara, frustrated by her father's ability to buy his way to salvation, disillusioned when she returns to familial and class convention. David Horovitch presents a masterly portrayal of the "prince of darkness", especially when engaging in sparkling dialogue with Barbara or her fiancé, Cusins, earnestly played by Michael Colgan.
In the absence of Sorcha Cusack, Laura Cox has been thrust into the limelight, doubling her small part as Salvation Army commissioner with that of Lady Britomart. Tackling her additional role in a manner that seems to combine, in her haughty manner and mirthless smile, both Lady Bracknell and Lady Thatcher, she makes a brave stab at her exposed and substantial opening scene with her priggish son.
The music-hall representation of the underbelly of society in the Salvation Army shelter is played up for the audience's entertainment, though this in fairness was what Shaw intended. But did the writer really mean some members of the Undershaft family and their friends to seem quite so feckless? And they're not even the ones Lady Britomart denounces as lunatics.
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