The Globe and Mail's review:
By KATE TAYLOR
Wednesday, July 10, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R4
Harley Granville Barker's His Majestywas the dark horse of the 2002 playbill at the Shaw Festival, a forgotten 1923 script by a difficult playwright that only made its debut in Britain, and to very mixed reviews, in 1992 and has never been seen in North America. It certainly doesn't emerge a clear winner in a Canadian premiere subtly directed by Neil Munro at the Court House Theatre, but it runs a race rich in incident.
The play is set after the First World War in the fictional European country of Carpathia, where the exiled King (David Schurmann) has returned, hoping to lead his nation out of civil war and toward good government without shedding a drop of blood. The story is inspired by the history of Charles I, last of the Hapsburg emperors, but has unfortunate overtones of those 1930s musical movies set in make-believe Balkan states where people with silly accents goose-step about in dress uniform.
Munro is careful to treat the humour in the script for what it really is -- quiet irony -- but still can't resist a bit of funny business with faulty pens in a scene where the King and various functionaries are signing an armistice.
Meanwhile, the play's plot takes the form of a political thriller as the nominal Carpathian government led by one Madrassy (Michael Ball) schemes against the King while the hotheaded monarchist rebel Stephen Czernyak pesters him to accept the might of his loyal soldiers. Once you realize it doesn't matter that you don't know where Zimony is, didn't catch that last general's name and can't quite follow the King's reasons for returning to Carpathia in the first place, the intrigue becomes engrossing.
But Barker's point is more serious. He is returning to the theme he addressed in plays such as Waste and The Secret Life, showing the difficulty of integrity amid the complexities of politics and business. Here, the King insists he will participate in neither violence nor deceit, but those are precisely the terms on which he is offered back his crown.
Over the years, the Shaw Festival, which is now concluding its Barker series begun back in 1988 with The Voysey Inheritance, has successfully revealed the subtlety of this playwright's observations of human character. Here, Lorne Kennedy gently offers the creeping humour of the aide-de-camp who knows his pretensions to position are as ludicrous as his master's, while Sharry Flett gets to work on the gracious realism of the Queen's lady-in-waiting, Countess Czernyak.
But the difficulty with this drama is that the well-intentioned but ineffectual King never faces any serious challenge to his beliefs nor recognizes the danger of his whimsy. In the one scene, where he is offered a devil's bargain, he dismisses it out of hand. The result is too heavy to be satisfying as a thriller, but lacks the climax that would make it some grander drama let alone the moment of reckoning that would turn it to tragedy.
As the King, Schurmann is firm and brisk, which helps an audience through the complex action but finally makes very little of the man's desire to reclaim his crown. In these hands, the character's equanimity about his losses and realism about his future chances come to him far too easily, while his folly is dismissed far too lightly.
Mary Haney's anxious and shrunken version of the embittered Queen, convinced her husband is God's anointed and unable to comprehend their fall from grace, offers a much richer reading of a more interesting character. As she begins to scheme behind his back, her increasingly compromised position proves fascinating. His Majesty, on the other hand, makes integrity look easy and bland, even if the final prize is only exile in Bermuda.
His Majesty runs at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., until Sept. 21. For information: 1-800-511-7429.
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