The Apple Cart At The Shaw Festival
I can only assume that the reason that George Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart is not as well known and as frequently revived as some of his other works is because it deals with politics with a capital P.
I dare say that, being one of those dreaded “plays of ideas,” it is not everyone’s cup of tea. I can easily see it being derided as “static,” “talky,” and even “tedious.”
Indeed, the Shaw Festival seems to have its own reservations about The Apple Cart and a tendency to hedge its bets. The current production is being mounted in the tiny Studio Theatre. The last Shaw production, in 2005, was in the equally intimate (and now gone) Court House Theatre.
Of course, a superlative production of a good script can work wonders. The vastly entertaining 2023 production, under the shrewd direction of Eda Holmes, makes a powerful case for elevating The Apple Cart to a position of preeminence in Shaw’s oeuvre.
That may be a consummation devoutly to be wished but unfortunately not many productions will be able to boast a cast of the calibre Holmes has assembled or her skill at eliciting the very best from each of them.
The Apple Cart is usually described as a satire on democracy. I think a meditation on democracy comes closer to the mark. Shaw himself called it “a political extravaganza,” suggesting that it is intended to be particularly entertaining.
Written in 1928, The Apple Cart imagines Britain in the distant year of 1967, when much has changed but much remains the same and the country seems to be in a constant sate of crisis.
The king, Magnus, is confronted by Prime Minister Proteus (all the characters have Greco-Roman or biblical monikers) who finds the king’s power of the veto, not to mention his freedom of speech, a decided inconvenience. The solution is to get the king to sign off on an ultimatum that will reduce the monarch to a silent rubber stamp for whatever parliament decides to do.
How Magnus confronts this challenge is the central action of The Apple Cart, but any good extravaganza, so says Merriam-Webster, demands “extreme freedom of style and structure [with] elements of burlesque or parody.”
So Shaw gives us “an interlude” in which Magnus visits his mistress Orinthia, who makes a most persuasive case of why Magnus should get quit of his wife and make her the queen. There is also a surprise visit from the excited American ambassador, who announces that the United States has decided to rip up the Declaration of Independence and rejoin the British Empire, a gesture that is quickly seen to be a benign form of hostile takeover.
Nothing ages faster than a play about politics, unless it’s play about politics set in a distant future that is now fifty odd years in the past. Yet The Apple Cart remains eerily prescient nearly a century after Shaw wrote it. Consider these points:
The business of the people seems to be on hold thanks to an entrenched parliamentary faction intent of getting its own way.
The true power behind parliament seems to be the vast multinational firm Breakages, Ltd, whose very name suggests a vulture capitalist strategy of creating products that will need constant replacement or “upgrades.”
Labour has been coopted by the lure of power and privilege, its leaders replacing workmen’s duds for top hat and tails and the company of princesses.
And no American lucky enough to make it to Niagara-on-the-Lake will fail to be brought up short by a line like “Suppose a man with a bigger voice comes along! Some fool! Some windbag! Some upstart with a platform trick of gulling the multitude!”
Helping make all this vastly entertaining is a top-notch cast. As King Magnus, Tom Rooney is nothing short of brilliant. If anyone can keep you on the edge of your seat during a lengthy, closely reasoned Shavian debate it’s Tom Rooney.
Now that Christopher Plummer has been gathered to his fathers, Rooney is arguably Canada’s greatest living classical actor.
The other standout performance comes from Sochi Fried as Orinthia, in a star-making Shaw Festival debut. It’s a towering portrayal and, as directed by Holmes, her “interlude” with the king is comedic gold and may be reason enough to come see The Apple Cart.
Shaw burnishes his feminist cred in The Apple Cart with the creation of two women who represent voices of sanity in government and the actresses who portray them are both excellent.
Sharry Flett, who is making something of a career at Shaw playing powerful women (she was Death in last season’s Everybody!) is Lysistrata, Powermistress General, and she turns in her usual strong performance. Rebecca Northan, who seems to have put her improvised cabaret turn, Blind Date, behind her, makes an auspicious Shaw debut as Amanda, Postmistress General.
There is excellent work, too, from Martin Happer as Boanerges, the union boss, who thinks he has flimflammed the king when the opposite is true, and Graeme Somerville, as Proteus, the prime minister with a volcanic temper.
Judith Bowden has given The Apple Cart an efficient all-white set, punctuated with splashes of red for the king’s encounter with Orinthia, and Sophie Tang has lit it nicely. But it is Bowden’s witty costumes that make the greatest impression. If there is any justice, her outfit for Orinthia already has couturiers busy knocking it off.
I also got a kick out of trade union leader Boanerges’ hero-of-soviet-industry outfit, complete with red cap (“The uniform of labour … I’m proud of it!”). It made his switch to top hat, morning suit, and obviously uncomfortable shoes all the funnier.
Oh, about that title. When Magnus unveils the ploy with which he plans to parry the prime minister’s ultimatum, the anti-monarchist cabinet is aghast. “You can’t upset the apple cart like this,” cries one. “I must say this is not playing the game,” remonstrates another.
So you see, politics is just a game. Plus ça change . . .
The Apple Cart continues at the Shaw Festival’s Jackie Maxwell Studio through October 7, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Shaw festival website.