Engaging Shaw: a Playwright’s Private Comedy

A portrait of George Bernard Shaw premieres at Vienna's English Theatre: a complicated man, put lightly

Robin Kingsland as Shaw and Amanda Osbourne as Charlotte | Photo: English Theatre

Shaw’s dialogue with Charlotte Payne-Townshend is mostly a creation of playwright John Morogiello, but still convincing | Photo: English Theatre

Robin Kingsland and Amanda Osbourne

Robin Kingsland as Shaw and Amanda Osbourne as Charlotte | Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

In 1913, George Bernard Shaw’s most famous play, Pygmalion, which in its various forms was to win both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, received its world premiere in Vienna. So it’s appropriate that the European premiere of American playwright John Morogiello’s portrait, Engaging Shaw, is now on stage at Vienna’s English Theatre. It is a drawing-room comedy of the kind GBS himself wrote without meaning to, his irrepressible wit glinting and bouncing through the heavy-handed political messages he was concerned to convey, but which his audiences preferred to ignore.

In Engaging Shaw, John Morogiello has affectionately turned the tables on him, putting the politics at the service of the humour. He has constructed his play largely out of dialogue extracted from the writings of GBS himself and those of two of his close friends, the crusading socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, founders of the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics. The words of Charlotte Payne-Townshend, fellow Fabian and Shaw’s wealthy future wife, however, are Morogiello’s own.

This is a witty, wordy play, and it needs a very light touch to keep it afloat. If this production tips a little now and then, the bailouts are quick, and on the whole, it bobs along quite nicely. Robin Kingsland is indeed engaging as the larger-than-life Shaw, an overgrown teenager bursting with political and philosophical ideas, smart, smug, sweet, and selfish. Even as you’re laughing, you want to throttle him, and as Shaw himself warned Charlotte: “Should you feel the urge to throttle me, be careful, for then you’ll be in love.”

And of course, before long, she is, and she plays at Shaw’s own game of self-serving unconventionality by proposing marriage herself, and moreover, a marriage without sex – without even the “once a week, on Saturday night, after I’ve wound the clock” arrangement which Sidney insists has worked perfectly well for himself and Beatrice. It’s a pity that Amanda Osborne, otherwise convincing as the charming and determined heiress, couldn’t have mastered the accent; when she tells us she’s Irish, we only half believe her. The philandering Shaw said of the real Charlotte, “Being also Irish, she does not succumb to my arts as the unsuspecting and literal Englishwoman does.” A pretty brogue would have added a you-can’t-fool-me-we’re-two-of-a-kind touch to her impish sparring, and heightened the sense that the great man had, in more than one way, met his match at last.

Shaw’s dialogue with Charlotte Payne

Shaw’s dialogue with Charlotte Payne-Townshend is mostly a creation of playwright John Morogiello, but still convincing | Photo: English Theatre

But it still works. Aided by the Webbs, who transmute their political methodology of gradualism and permeation into a marriage campaign strategy (step by step, till he can’t do without you), Charlotte eventually snares GBS in his own over-rationalized trap. A neat, three-way letter scene, in which we hear the various plots and counterplots largely in original words, shows him slipping inexorably into the chaste (and as it turned out, 45-year-long) embrace of his “dear, green-eyed one”.

Morogiello has made very clever use of the Webbs’ correspondence, turning the straw utterances of two over-earnest social reformers into ironic and self-deprecating gold. The pre-premiere audience laughed at them delightedly, not a response that generally springs to mind when one thinks of this dour pair.

A foil to the puckish Shaw, Charles Armstrong is good as the earthbound Sidney, endearingly proud of his own limitations: If you can’t fix it, feature it. Beatrice’s supposed own attraction to GBS, however, comes as a surprise, and remains unconvincing; her distraught and uncharacteristic plea to Sidney to “take me away from here” is a weak moment in the play. But this isn’t the fault of director Andrew Hall, still less that of Shuna Snow, who intelligently finds room for warmth in the role of the briskly capable Beatrice. This is a fault of the text; John Morogiello has imposed a clumsy burst of drama on an otherwise successful romantic comedy. Shaw’s occasional hints about the mother who abandoned him are intrusive, too: An investigation of that issue, and its impact on his later relations with women, in particular with Charlotte, would have been beefy matter for a psychological drama, but then that would have been another play entirely.

This work is set in the 1890s, and Andrew Hall’s naturalistic direction is exactly what it needs; the traditional sets and costumes, by Terry Parsons, are entirely appropriate. Engaging Shaw is no experimental challenge, but for footsore tourists seeking an enjoyable evening in comfortable seats, it will be just the thing.

Engaging Shaw
through 5 May, 19:30
Vienna’s English Theatre
8., Josefsgasse 12
(01) 402 12 60-0

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