Lisa Peterson’s bold decision to tackle The Philanderer in its original version, for the first time at the Shaw Festival, was undoubtedly a triumph. I was fortunate enough to see Bernard Shaw’s second play as it was meant to be seen: with the abandoned third act. Rewritten due to a suggestion from Shaw’s friend, Lady Colin Campbell – who believed that his Victorian audience was unprepared for a play so far ahead of its time – the original conclusion is a brutally honest and cynical commentary on marriage, which proves to be currently relevant, as it illustrates the common realities of so many modern relationships.
Based very literally on some of Shawn’s own philanderings, this play tells the story of Leonard Charteris (Gord Rand), an infamous philanderer and philosopher of the Ibsen club, and his love triangle with the widowed “new woman”, Grace Tranfield (Marla McLean), and the womanly Julia Craven (Moya O’Connell). Leonard is madly in love with Grace, who, with her “advanced” ways of thinking, would never marry a gentleman whom she loved more than he loved her, so as not to give him the upper hand. And of course, Julia, who Leonard does not want, cannot live without him.
I was immediately in awe of the incredibly detailed and authentic set and costume design by Sue LePage. Together with Kevin Lamotte’s lighting design, the duo creates a thrilling contrast as they change direction completely for the third and final act. Their choices prove to produce a cold and harsh atmosphere for Shaw and his clever characters to criticize the conventionalism and hypocrisy of Victorian societal norms and legislation.
The entire cast gives spectacular performances, my favourite being Gord Rand’s Leonard Charteris. As the title character, Leonard is the philanderer, but also isn’t. In a modern context, a man who sleeps around is often thought of to be a smooth-talking, selfish jerk – the stereotypical “womanizer”. However, Rand lacks those negative qualities and brings quirkiness to the role, making it hard to condemn the character for his promiscuous ways. After all, as Shaw tells us, the philanderer of his time is a man who, though he does love the women he is with, simply loves himself more. Rand’s delivery of the text and humorous physicality makes Leonard impossible not to fall in love with.
As the two and half hours quickly disappear before your eyes, it becomes very clear that Peterson’s direction is carefully calculated, down to the very last detail. Example? Pink’s newest single, “True Love,” plays in the background as the curtains are drawn and we exit the theatre. The catchy song, in which the artist sings, ‘at the same time, I wanna hug you, I wanna wrap my hands around your neck,’ in every way reminds me of the ever-continuing and overly-complicated love/hate relationship between Leonard and Julia.
Overall, this show is an intelligent, fast-paced and thought-provoking battle of the sexes, which is not to be missed. Treat yourself to a rare and spectacular theatrical experience of George Bernard Shaw’s original, The Philanderer.
The Philanderer is playing now through October 12th at the Shaw Festival (Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake). Tickets are $24-$113. For more information call the Box Office at 905-511-7429 or visit www.shawfest.com.