Shaw's War of Ideas Is Still Sallying Forth; Elegantly Nuanced: Simon Russell Beale as Andrew Undershaft with Clare Higgins (Lady Britomart) and Hayley Atwell (Major Barbara) in Nicholas Hytner's Production at the Olivier

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Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH

WHAT a shock it is to realise that this great, ironic comedy by BernardShaw speaks to us with even more chilling urgency than it did at its 1905premiere. For Major Barbara sketches a portrait of Britain in which SimonRussell Beale's devilishly persuasive manufacturer of war weapons, AndrewUndershaft, revels in the fact that his power is unassailable, that he standshigh above the control of governments.

Today when a prosecution alleging corruption over sale of arms to Saudi Arabiais abandoned on grounds of "national interest", or our "ethical" policy on saleof arms is reckoned impractical, Britain seems to have lost none of itseagerness to enrich itself by packing the world with fairly lethal weapons: TomPye's grimly imaginative design for the final scene in Undershaft's factorybrims with munitions and war-heads.

Major Barbara, though, only refers to the eternal arms race to make scathingpolitical points about something different. Shaw harks back thematically to hisMrs Warren's Profession, in which prostitution is accepted as an unexceptionaltrade for young women who have no other way of escaping poverty. The East End,self-made millionaire Undershaft, in matching style, uses the fortune he makeson war-weapons to give his well-paid workers happy and secure lives.

Shaw launches Major Barbara in sophisticated, drawing-room comedy style, withClare Higgins's haughty Lady Britomart presiding over her twenty-somethingchildren, as if she were connected by language and breeding to Oscar Wilde'sLady Bracknell. The play then opens out in radical form and travels to thesombre, down-market locale of a West Ham Salvation Army shelter, where theinmates speak a Cockney quite unknown in normal Edwardian drama. …