AMID the many sentimental commemorations of the centenary of World War I, the Abbey Theatre is staging George Bernard Shaw’s comedy, Heartbreak House. It treats the ‘Great War’ with appropriate horror and a satirical edge.
Shaw furiously opposed the war, from 1914 to 1918, which soured the Dublin writer’s popularity in his adopted home of England. It also prompted him to hold back on publishing Heartbreak House — which travestied the complacent lead-up to the war — until 1920. The play is a blackly comic dissection of the leisured classes in England and their inertia when war might have been averted.
“It’s a play about a period of indulgence and laissez-faire inaction,” says director Róisín McBrinn. “And it could very easily be related to periods in more contemporary history and to very current scenarios. Backstage, we’ve been listening to the BBC Radio show, Day by Day, where they amalgamate news bulletins from the days leading up to the war. And that’s been really engaging — to imagine what people would have been hearing at the time. But what resonates from that, and from the books and the material we’ve been researching, is that there was a real lack of urgency about the small flutters of crisis that were then coming from the Balkans.”
Shaw described the attitude of polite society as one of “utter enervation” and a similar ‘enervation’ is visible in the West today: most of us have privileged, cosseted lives, and are oblivious to conflicts elsewhere, even though our lifestyles are implicated in them. So the play is still relevant. “It’s really fascinating what he’s dealing with,” says McBrinn. “There’s a whole debate within the play about the worth of a soul and what a soul actually is. For me, the play is about the spirit of life.”
Despite its graver subtext, Heartbreak House is one of Shaw’s funniest plays. The Abbey production includes some of Ireland’s most versatile comic actors: Nick Dunning, Barbara Brennan, and Don Wycherley.
The characters assembled at the home of Captain Shotover — in a room built like a boat — are eccentrics and madcaps who invite our affection, despite their fripperies. It is as if characters from a Noel Coward comedy had been mistakenly parachuted into a Chekhov play of social decline.
“With some of the scenes, it is almost as if Coward actually took them and polished them up for his own plays,” says McBrinn. “The conflicts are exactly the same. Shaw does go one step further than either Wilde or Coward, though. He allows for the fun and the banter, all the witty repartee, which we love. But the darkness underneath it and the deep messages within are, arguably, what separate him from them.”
Shaw’s plays are often unfairly tarred as merely rhetorical dramas pushing a social issue, which is a disservice to his great, provocative wit and the vitality of his characters. McBrinn says Heartbreak House diverts from the Shaw stereotype.
“It’s more like a fable than a Shaw ‘argument’ play,” she says. “And it’s been quite liberating to think about it in that way. Shaw considered it one of his favourites, because it touched upon what he described as ‘the mystic’ and ‘the miracle’.
“ I translate that as a lyricism in the play that makes it less cerebral and more visceral.”
“The house itself is another character in the play. There’s a transformative nature to this house — predominately the fact that you can’t leave it.”
This idea calls to mind Luis Bunuel’s deft satire, his 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel, in which the bourgeois guests at an elite dinner party are mysteriously unable to leave, with ludicrous consequences. McBrinn says Bunuel and surrealism resonate with what Shaw was attempting in Heartbreak House. “You’ve got great flushes of absurdism in the play, way before it was at all in vogue,” she says.
Yet, for all Heartbreak House’s comic charm, Shaw’s aim was to prod people toward action. “The Shotovers are really attractive by virtue of their madness and their bohemianism, but the play asks about responsibility,” she says.
“Ultimately, Shaw was for social change, and he actively believed that everyone has a civic duty.”
This is McBrinn’s first time directing a show on the Abbey’s main stage. The Dubliner — who has carved out a career in UK theatre over the past decade — has previously directed Perve and No Escape on the second stage, the Peacock.
“It’s a big privilege for me,” she says. “This is the city I grew up in and the Abbey stage is the one where I saw a lot of theatre during my formative years.”
After Heartbreak House, McBrinn will return to the UK to commence her appointment as head of artistic development at Clean Break, a London-based theatre company focused on issues pertaining to women and crime in the UK.
It’s the sort of socially conscious role of which Shaw — a frequent campaigner for women’s rights — might have approved.
“The parallel I’d draw is that Shaw was interested in changing the world and theatre was his medium,” says McBrinn. “I think both he and Clean Break share a belief that theatre can actually alter people’s lives.”