Shaw Fire Hit: Review of STC’s Arms and the Man
Arms and the Man (1894) was one of Bernard Shaw’s early commercial successes, although today it is maybe less well known than some of his other pieces; but as the STC and director, Richard Cottrell, show, this is certainly not due to any deficiency. Raina is the daughter of a wealthy Bulgarian family and engaged to an equally wealthy and heroic soldier who has just won an important victory over the Serbian army. That night, a retreating Swiss officer in the Serbian army, Bluntschli, sneaks into her room to escape death. She agrees to hide him from capture and saves his life. Peace is soon declared and her fiancé returns home. When Bluntschli also turns up, the stage is set for farcical adventure.
Although everything is handled with a decidedly light touch, Shaw deals with a raft of subjects. Most central of which is Raina’s idealized and romantic notions of combat and life that come up against Bluntschli’s more pragmatic understanding of reality. In the late Victorian period romantic portrayals of war were common place, and to suggest that the man who led a cavalry charge was really a coward would have been quite the divergent claim. Shaw also handles issues of class structure and seamlessly interweaves ideas of courage and cowardice between both the civilian and military spheres.
Set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell also contributes to this reading. We are treated to a stunning white stage, with intricate lattice walls and trees that look as though they were cut from paper to resemble snowflakes. The effect gives the stage a fairy-tale feel, which feeds into the initial ideas of romanticism. It also creates a world that gives the actors leave to play up their roles, and in this Arms and the Man has been blessed with a cast that cannot be faulted.
This production brims with precision and effortlessness across the board. Andrea Demetriades plays Raina, our Bulgarian heroine. Demetriades brings great spirit to the role. She is light, youthful and playful yet capable of sincerity when the moment calls for it. Mitchell Butel plays our Swiss dreamboat, Bluntschli, a professional paid-for-battle soldier attached to the Serbian army. As Raina’s restrained older suitor, Butel is handsome, tolerant and forever endearing. Both performances were perfectly pitched and their scenes together made love at first sight completely appropriate as a conceit. Raina’s fiancé and unexperienced soldier-general Saranoff, performed by the dashing Charlie Cousins, could only be described as the Bulgarian Johnny Bravo, but with a little more clown. Sporting hair as large as his ego, Cousins-as-Saranoff was delightful to watch, and laced the show with some wonderful gimmicks to great comedic effect. Despite the fact the Cousins’ time in television may have worked against him (since his presence could never quite match that of the stage actors), he managed the character with great aplomb. Skilful performances were also given by the booming Deborah Kennedy and the fluttering William Zappa as Raina’s parents. Olivia Rose was captivating as the dark beauty Louka, Raina’s servant. Her sex appeal and sharp tongue was undeniable, and made for a steamy sub-plot with Saranoff. Finally, Brandon Burke brought up the rear as man-servant Nicola, an unapologetic opportunist. His performance was full of colour and beans, nicely rounding out the ensemble, and the production as a whole.
Costumes are often a hit or miss kind of venture, but here, Julie Lynch has outdone herself. Costumes are lavish and exotic, with lace and silk screen patterns, the colours appearing as vibrant as a peacock’s tail. The designs are of period, with wonderful trailing skirts and military boots, making for all the characters to appear as if they were dolls signifying the national dress.
George Orwell called Arms and the Man Shaw’s finest play, and it is difficult to disagree. It is a skillfully wrought story that deftly interweaves several important ideas without ever weighing the play’s comedy down. This is one not to be missed. Arms and the Man is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 31st of October. For more information see: