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Arms and the Man

by on 24 November 2022

Chocolates or Cartridges

Arms and the Man

by George Bernard Shaw

OT Theatre Productions at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until 14th January

Review by Steve Mackrell

First produced in 1894 and set during and after the Serbian-Bulgarian war of 1885, George Bernard Shaw’s celebrated comedy about the futility of war retains a stark relevance given today’s war in Ukraine.  George Orwell claimed Arms and the Man, writtenwhen Shaw was at the height of his powers, was probably the wittiest play he ever wrote, technically flawless and, despite being a comedy, the most telling about the harsh realities of war.  For his swansong as Artistic Director at the Orange Tree, Director Paul Miller has produced a brisk, well-paced and beautifully-acted piece of theatre.  Miller is very much an aficionado of Shaw having produced six of his plays in the eight years of his tenure at the Orange Tree – including Candida, Misalliance and The Philanderer.

His latest foray into the world of Shaw, Arms and the Man, focuses on the life of Raina Petkoff (Rebecca Collingwood), a Bulgarian heiress who is engaged to a swaggering Bulgarian cavalry officer, Sergius (Alex Bhat).   In the midst of the Serbian-Bulgarian war, the unexpected arrival of a battle-weary enemy officer, Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann), a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbian army, turns Raina’s life upside down after he’s taken refuge in her bedroom to hide from the Bulgarian army.   And so begins Shaw’s satire on the debunking of the romantic ideals of war and heroism.  Bluntschli asks Raina to remember that “nine soldiers out of ten are born fools.”  His pragmatic and cynical attitude to war and soldiering shocks the idealistic Raina, especially after he admits that he uses his ammunition pouches to carry chocolates rather than cartridges – which, incidentally, subsequently gave rise to the phrase “a chocolate soldier”.

Alex Bhat’s swaggering cavalry officer, Sergius, is masterfully funny – anarchic comedy indeed – yet never going over the top but striking exactly the right balance between comedy and absurd farce.  It was a fine, outrageous and mesmerising physical performance.  As the male counterbalance to the war hero, Bluntschli is the pragmatic idealist and is very much the mouthpiece for Shaw’s ideals.  He also provides the romantic hero and Alex Waldmann’s Bluntschli came across as both believable and sincere in expressing his anti-war sentiments.  This was a finely judged piece of acting and his scene in Act One with Raina was touching and engrossing.  As for the heroine, Rebecca Collingwood’s Raina was full of well observed facial expressions and reactions and she also captured the transition from the naïve open-eyed girl in Act One to the more knowing and mature young woman aged 23 by Act Three.  In a sense, hers is a portrayal of early feminism and explores a character who discovers the strength of knowing her own mind to follow her own passions and instincts. 

Raina’s mother, played by Miranda Foster, also turned in a particularly fine and sincere performance.  All in all, beautifully acted by all the cast and yes, sometimes over-acted – but always in a stylised and restrained way without edging into total farce.

There are, of course, numerous twists and turns that follow in the plot – who will Raina choose between Sergius or Bluntschli?  Plus a sub-plot – will Raika’s maid Louka (Kemi Awoderu) marry the manservant Nicola (Jonah Russell)?  And there is a side story about the borrowing of the coat belonging to Raika’s father (Jonathan Tafler).  But the plot is a side issue – the main event is the colourful characters, their articulate views, attitudes and interactions with each other.  These are the devices that keep the audience engrossed.  Overall, a stunning production with simple elegant design (Simon Daw) and exquisite late Victorian costumes even down to a wristwatch of the period. 

But Shaw’s play is not just about the absurdities of war but also comments on feminism, politics, the class system and indeed, his wit, intelligence and profundity is still relevant after 125 years.  This interpretation of one of Shaw’s classic plays is a timely reminder of the greatness of this Irish writer.  His ideas are still relevant today, his dialogue still resonates, and the rhythm of his word structure still fascinates and has even been likened to opera – or verbal music.  The conversation between the characters is elegant and civilised – we hear of “my friend the enemy” and the observation of the manservant that “service is the secret of success in servitude.”  Much elegant wordplay and, incidentally, the title of the play comes from the opening words of Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, “Of arms and the man I sing.”

Interestingly, for these days of plays with usually only one interval, this production retains the original three act structure, meaning there are two fifteen-minute intervals – all very refreshing

Overall, this is an intelligent, funny and romantic play in equal measures – a perfect Christmas offering or perhaps even an antidote to Christmas.  Without doubt, this was a thumping good evening’s entertainment in the theatre and without doubt one of the funniest productions seen in many a month.  All-in-all, this is theatre at its best and made even more intimate and personal when played in the small auditorium of the Orange Tree – very close-up and personal. 

Steve Mackrell, November 2022

Photography by Ellie Kurttz

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