Heartbreak House at Shaw’s Corner

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We were very proud to host a production of Shaw’s masterpiece Heartbreak House in the gardens here at Shaw’s Corner in July this year. Here is a great review of it from Ayot St Lawrence resident Victoria Campion:

“Whilst not renowned for his modesty, George Bernard Shaw was reputedly particularly proud of Heartbreak House; Michael Friend’s recent production at the Shaw’s Corner Outdoor Theatre made it easy to understand why. This ‘Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes’ pays homage to Chekov, delivering a similar criticism of the ‘leisure classes’ and the perceived moral decline of society at the time. In 2014 – not only the centenary of the First World War, but in a world where many are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the modern world and the capitalist system, Shaw’s masterpiece has perhaps never been more relevant – and where better to heed his warning than on a fine summer’s evening, in the idyllic grounds of his own house?

The play depicts the exploits – and heartbreaks – of the Hushabye family and their guests, exchanging sharp repartee in the ‘overheated drawing-room atmosphere’ – oblivious, or wilfully blind, to the course society is taking. As young, female visitor to the house Ellie Dunn (Kate Burchett) becomes increasingly disenchanted with her companions and their conduct, the audience senses Shaw’s own disgust at the ‘utter enervation and futilisation … [which] was delivering the world over to the control of ignorant and soulless cunning and energy, with the frightful consequences which have now overtaken it’ (Shaw, introduction to Heartbreak House). However, his savage wit is still very much in evidence, most notably in the forthright Captain Shotover (John Atterbury), an elderly seaman whose selective memory and fondness for rum provide much light relief. Nevertheless, Shaw deemed this play a tragedy, and amongst the wordplay and witticisms, there lurks an almost nihilistic pessimism.

Portraits of the period immediately prior to the war’s outbreak are often clouded with nostalgia (Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV, for example: ‘Never such innocence,/ Never before or since’), yet Shaw’s clear-eyed gaze does away with the halcyon haze of Edwardian summer, to reveal ‘this soul’s prison we call England’. In essence, the play is a study in the creation and destruction of ideals – family, romance, friendship, business – nothing is safe from his acerbic gaze, though at times the effortless (and seemingly endless!) supply of epigrams and societal commentary can stretch credulity.

However, it was in the third and final Act that the play truly came into its own. As the evening darkened and cooled, (a great advantage of outdoor theatre, considering the play’s ‘September evening’ setting), Shaw’s vision of a society entering its autumn – the twilight of man – crystallized, to chilling effect.

Ellie and Hesione Hushabye (Laura Fitzpatrick) greet an enemy bombing with thrilled exhilaration, comparing it to ‘Beethoven’ with an unsettling earnestness. Awash in the Captain’s frequent nautical metaphors (remarkably unforced, Atterbury having trodden the fine line between proclamation and insincerity with care), one is given the sense that this circle is teetering on the edge of disaster, attempting to hide the horrors and genuine heartbreaks of war between the velveteen sofa cushions. When Hector Hushabye (Cameron Robertson) declares ‘we of this house are only moths flying into the candle’, he speaks for both his generation and our own. This is a play that will make you laugh, reflect, and – just maybe – break your heart.”

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