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Misalliance: George Bernard Shaw’s obscure comic play is revived ‘in a spirit of mischief’

Rhys Issac-Jones and Luke Thallon in rehearsals for Misalliance at the Orange Tree Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks Gabrielle Lloyd, Tom Hanson and Marli Siu in rehearsals for Misalliance Misalliance at the Orange Tree Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Three decades since its last major staging, George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance is set to be produced at the Orange Tree Theatre. Al Senter marvels at the freshness of the century-old play that’s part screwball comedy, part Ibsen

All playwrights, dead or alive, need champions to keep them in the public eye, though perhaps George Bernard Shaw less than most. His work from Pygmalion and Man and Superman to Saint Joan is regularly revived, but for his less well-known plays, sometimes decades can pass in between productions.

Riding to the rescue, in a modest way, has been Paul Miller, artistic director of Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, who has recently staged Widowers’ Houses and The Philanderer.

The Philanderer review at Orange Tree Theatre, London – ‘gently radical’

Now he turns to directing the madcap world of Misalliance, which Miller describes as “part screwball comedy, part Ibsen, part Theatre of the Absurd”. Written in 1909, Misalliance is Shaw at his merriest and most mischievous, undermining the template of the country-house play in which visitors arrive by a variety of entrances and where there are several examples of shameless coincidence.

The young women in the play are gloriously assertive while the men seem entirely ineffectual, rather in the manner of Cary Grant’s boffin in the screen classic Bringing Up Baby, press-ganged by Katharine Hepburn into a string of misadventures.

Shaw’s love of paradox and of upturning received ideas has seldom been put to more entertaining use. The play is hard to categorise as it leaps from melodrama to farce and to a comedy of manners. It is puzzling why such a sparkling piece should have been ignored when we have seldom been in more need of Shaw’s effervescent imagination.

Miller suggests that Peter Nichols may have inadvertently been the cause of Shaw’s falling out of favour when, in Privates on Parade, he has camp Captain Terri Dennis observe: “Oh, that Bernadette Shaw, he’s such a chatterbox!”

Everything about Shaw is on a grand scale: from reaching 94 years old, penning more than 50 plays, voluminous correspondence and collected criticism, to his tireless political engagement. He bursts with an energy that few other dramatists can match and yet there has been no major revival of Misalliance since a Royal Shakespeare Company production in the autumn of 1986.

“It’s not a huge cast and all nine parts are very good ones,” argues Miller. “It used to be performed quite regularly but it suffered, as all Shaw’s plays suffered, when he fell out of favour in the 1980s. It was believed that his work was long and pompous and he acquired a false reputation for being a didactic writer. But Misalliance is like a Catherine wheel. It fizzes with life and different ideas. He was a deeply felt feminist and a heartfelt socialist but I feel that he is also a playwright who likes to upset the apple cart.”

It’s often argued that Shaw was unable to create individual characters and that they tend to be as formidably intelligent and articulate as their author. It was a charge that, characteristically, he supported, according to Miller.

“As I remember the story, Shaw had seen a production of The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd by DH Lawrence and he praised the quality of Lawrence’s dialogue and he criticised his own. “All I hear in my work is the sound of the typewriter,” he lamented.

What does Misalliance – and Shaw’s work in general – demand from the actor? “If you are working on a play by Shaw, you need to have a verbal dexterity and that often comes from having done a certain amount of classical plays,” says Miller. “The language is not easy but the actors seem to relish it. It’s rare that they get such meaty dialogue to work on.”

For actor Simon Shepherd, playing retired civil servant Lord Summerhays, Misalliance is uncannily prophetic. It resonates with issues that come straight from today’s headlines.

“In the play there are eight proposals of marriage, including two examples of older men making advances towards much younger women. Shaw is very unsparing in his take on how women are regarded in men’s eyes. There is an assumption that these middle-aged men are superior beings but the two old men are effectively carpeted by the two women.

“They are dealt with ruthlessly and without any of the sentimentality displayed by the older men. You can’t believe that this play was written over a century ago.”

For Shepherd, Misalliance is a complex piece that puts the actor on his mettle. “It’s really intricate and brave,” he says. “You have to concentrate and you can’t let your attention lapse for a single moment.

“You have to be able to see to the end of the line. It’s very challenging. Paul has been very fresh in his approach and he has encouraged us to grasp the entire length of the thought contained in the dialogue. We’ve done a lot of work on the play and that work continues. I suspect that we’ll still be working on it when the play ends its run in the middle of January.”

Early audiences have been surprised, says Shepherd, by the play’s topicality and by the gales of laughter it has provoked.

“The early plays such as Misalliance have a freshness and lack of preachiness which you can find in the later plays. I didn’t know it at all and when this production came up, I spoke to my friends Caroline Goodall and Malcolm Sinclair, who’d been in previous productions, to see if they thought Misalliance still worked. They were both adamant that it did. A cast of nine is large for the Orange Tree and I suppose that you look to the national companies to do these plays. They have the resources after all.”

Shaw was pleased to call Misalliance “a debate at one sitting” and the critic of the Times continued the theme in his review of the play at its opening in February 1910. He dismissed the piece as “the debating society of a lunatic asylum – without a motion and without a chairman”. The Standard reviewer was laconic. “Arrant nonsense,” he fumed. Not surprisingly, director Miller is more positive.

“I rather like it when people tell me that they have never heard of the play I’m directing.

“These plays have a freshness to them which the better-known plays have lost, perhaps. I’d advise audiences not to look for any thesis.

“This play represents an explosion of ideas that are bandied about and we should simply enjoy the game. Misalliance is not making some sententious declaration. It’s in a spirit of mischief that we offer up this play. Let’s have a look at it at least.”

Misalliance runs at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, until January 20, 2018

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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