It's a piquant spectacle - the Union Jack lowered and the Stars and Stripes hoisted in its stead on the main stage of the National Theatre of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But, this droll frisson aside, Christopher Morahan's production doesn't suggest many compelling reasons for mounting the Devil's Disciple (Shaw's inverted melodrama set during the American War of Independence) in the Olivier, a venue where you go hoping to see something more than mild diversion.
And mild diversion is what the Devil's Disciple now amounts to. Taking the standard ingredients of Victorian melodrama, from the Reading of the Will to the Gallow Reprieve, it at once parades and relentlessly, impudently punctures them. Sometimes, though, this merely results in one distorting extreme being replaced by another. The typical melodramatic hero is motivated to self-sacrifice exclusively by romantic love. Shaw programmatically reverses this in the figure of Dick Dudgeon, the trainee Shavian 'Superman' who is prepared, 'with no motive and no interest' and no tendresse for the minister's wife, to be arrested and sent to the gallows in mistake for him.
There could be something worryingly inhuman, rather than superhuman, about such impersonal goodness. Happily, Richard Bonneville, who brings a fine subversive panache to the part, also throws out suggestions that Dick's militant anti-romantic stance is that of a romantic who's leaning over backwards not to be. His performance adds further humanising touches like the shuddering fit of delayed shock he allows himself shortly after his release from the gallows.
The show is traditionally stolen in the last act by the arrival of Burgoyne, the urbane English general with a shrewd understanding of the perils of Anglo-Saxon gentlemanliness. Mindful of this, perhaps, a fine Daniel Massey camps up the arch-suavity of the man; to the point where you feel he might actually break out into a Jack Buchanan-style song and dance. He's splendidly supported by Jeremy Sinden's hilarious study of porcine pomposity as Major Swindon.
From the scrubbed virtue and stirred-up emotionalism of Helen McCrory's Judith to Frances Cuka's grim, black- bonnetted battleaxe of a mother, the parts are vividly registered. But this is not a production which colonises the Olivier with any great convictions. A large map of New England and a weak two- dimensional cluster of clapboard houses endeavour to fill up a space which only comes into its own in the gallows scene. The other problem is the play, whose staled subversiveness now comes lukewarm off the grid.
In repertory at the National Theatre, London SE1 from 21 Sept. Booking: 071-928 2252
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