Marching to a different beat

Philip Stewart tells Pádraic Killeen how the Salvation Army provided musical inspiration for GB Shaw’s Major Barbara

FOLLOWING a sparkling revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Abbey in 2011, the national theatre this month stages another Shaw classic, Major Barbara. The biting social satire centres on the clash of ideals between a Salvation Army major (Clare Dunne) and her irascible arms-dealing father (Paul McGann). It commences an eight-week run in the national theatre this Wednesday.

A key ingredient in the new production will be Dublin composer Philip Stewart’s score and sound design. Aptly, Stewart has salvaged melodies and hymnals from the traditional Songbook of the Salvation Army. A number of them were recently recorded with a 60-strong choir in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Meanwhile, the show itself will feature live playing by members of the cast.

“The play is really music-intensive,” says Stewart, “and that’s down to Shaw’s writing. He’s always referencing music and tunes. As a person he was very much enamoured with music and he made his living as a music journalist for a good many years.”

Dublin native Stewart is a long-term accomplice of Major Barbara’s director, Annabelle Comyn. They first worked together on a production of Martin Crimp’s The Country in 2004 and since then have collaborated on numerous shows, including the Abbey’s 2011 reboot of Pygmalion.

For Major Barbara, Comyn and Stewart arrived at the idea of using a choir because they wanted the score to reflect the disparate social forces at work in the Edwardian period of the play’s setting.

“Annabelle wanted to find a way of representing the different strata of British society and to find a musical analogue for these different bodies of people,” says Stewart. “So we talked about the idea that different voices within a choir — your soprano, your altos, tenors and basses — might be potentially representative of different strata in society.”

Meanwhile, among the original Salvation Army songs that Stewart has redeemed for the show are ‘Heaven’s Weave’ and ‘The Blood of the Lamb’. The latter, he notes, is full of charged imagery.

“The Blood of the Lamb deals with themes of cleaning and washing your sins away,” says Stewart. “It has all this intense imagery and when you read it cold on the page you think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty hardcore’. So when people were singing those songs back in the day you can well imagine how they could whip themselves into a religious frenzy. The interesting thing is that the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, was not a fan of people getting carried away chanting, but he justified it by saying that he was stealing the devil’s tunes to further his cause. So the Salvation Army would steal the melodies of drinking songs, parlour songs, and other songs of ill-repute, and put new lyrics to them.”

The practice fits quite neatly with Shaw’s own critique of liberal idealism in the play, where it’s diabolical arms magnate Andrew Undershaft who gets to present the most compelling progressive argument of all – his own “gospel” – that poverty is the worst of all evils.

Notably, the new production’s Undershaft — English actor Paul McGann (Withnail & I, Dr Who) — will be doing more than spouting his private gospel. In one scene he’s going to play the trombone as well.

“A trumpeter called John Walsh gave him lessons,” says Stewart. “The trick is to make it look convincing, so part of the work was just to get Paul comfortable with holding a trombone. It’s a very small moment, but these small moments take a long time to get right.”

While Stewart’s composition for theatre is always faithful to the text, the director’s vision, and the centrality of the actor’s voice, it remains nevertheless a medium for his own artistic expression, too.

“I suppose I do have a contemporary sensibility in the work I do,” Stewart says. “There’s an element of ‘pastiche’, for want of a better word, about much of the work for Major Barbara, but there’s one song — ‘Future Shock’ — that is a much more deliberately contemporary piece, and that’s probably most representative of the style that I’m naturally drawn to.”

Meanwhile, though he describes it as the “grittier side of it,” he says that even the more prosaic elements of sound design for theatre contain creative possibilities. His work on Owen McCafferty’s play Quietly last year, also for the Abbey, involved him recreating everything from the text beeps of a mobile phone to the static of a TV set. “I love the bridging of noise and music and I do try to introduce that into the work,” he says.

In fact, this practice has been noticeable in his work outside of theatre, particularly in a number of film installations he has worked on with the Irish filmmaker Catriona Campbell. His score for Campbell and Nina McGowan’s 2012 installation Loitering Theatre — which examined the everyday prevalence of surveillance technologies in our lives — was an eerie machinic squall. Their next project, Streislands, a video-art piece centred on Barbara Streisand’s concert in Ireland a few years back, will premiere at the Big House festival in Celbridge this weekend.

- Major Barbara runs at the Abbey from Aug 7 to Sep 21. Previews from Jul 31.


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