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Hollinger, Cyrano’s translator, also wrote the very funny Cold War spy farce Red Herring, which Washington Stage Guild staged in March. One of that show’s leads, Britt Herring (no relation), is among a handful of things the company’s new show, a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart, has going for it.
The other thing? A brain in a jar.
I’ll explain: Pamphilius, a royal aide described only as “middle aged” in the stage directions of this parliamentary parable from 1928, here floats pickled in brain juice, with a column of ascending bubbles and a light-up effect when he speaks. And why not? We are, after all, in The Future as imagined 83 years in the past, and the brain is a fun liberty taken in a stodgy show that could’ve used a lot more like it. Liberties, I mean. Not disembodied brains.
What Shaw imagined was a state beholden to a corporate megalith (called, uh, Breakages, Ltd.), wherein King Magnus (Herring, sporting a regal goatee) must avert a power grab by his cabinet spearheaded by Proteus, his prime minister. The king’s handlers won’t even allow him to read verbatim the speeches they write for him: “Your Majesty has a way of unrolling the manuscript and winking,” Proteus observes.
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Midway, Shaw introduces the potentially very funny notion that the United States, having irreparably botched the whole of-the-people-by-the-people thing, wants to rejoin the British Empire. To modern eyes at least, that looks like more fertile satirical ground than anything we’ve seen up till that point, but Shaw then completely drops the joke. The Apple Cart was the first play he wrote after collecting a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, and the honor seemed to embolden him to try increasingly outre formal experiments. Not all experiments succeed.
Crow all you want about Shaw’s prescience, with his forecasts of political gridlock and a government wherein shareholders wield more influence than the electorate—such as it is, given that voting representation in this England is at about 7 percent and the leaders are afraid to do anything they can’t explain in a sound bite to their dwindling constituencies. Oh, he mentions the Chunnel, too. Prophetic, sure, but it all just lies there, making a show that clocks in only a hair north of two hours feel infinitely longer. Aside from the fact that he’s better-looking and more quick-witted than his ministers, there’s very little to indicate why we should be on the king’s side, or to suggest he’s any more trustworthy a custodian of the citzenry’s best interest than his elected cabinet members.
It’s an unfair fight, but now Shaw must compete with all the more trenchant political satires that’ve followed his—everything from various works of Vaclav Havel to (seriously) RoboCop. After all, his big-show closing joke is to suggest that even the king is ruled—not by his cabinet, but by his wife. Har har.