By Lisa Codrington
adapted from the short story by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Ravi Jain
At the Court House Theatre, June 25-September 11, 2016
Made up and costumed as George Bernard Shaw, albeit far more robust than the real-life one, Guy Bannerman complains about the lack of a Preface in this one-act satire. He also complains that the Canadian playwright hasn’t even read his own Preface to the controversial short story he wrote in 1932, one that combined aspects of Voltaire, Swift, and Bunyan in his own inimitable way. Furious at these outrages, he thunders: “This is a massacre!” before he is interrupted by the Black Girl (Natasha Mumba) who proceeds to warn him cheekily that he can be replaced: “You’re not the first elite guy from across the pond who had a theatre named after him—and then not!” She’s referring, of course, to Stratford, where Shakespeare’s name is now absent from the festival title. Later, when GBS threatens to read his own Preface aloud, she reminds him that this is a lunch-time entertainment of around 50 minutes playing time, so he had better be quick. Her sharp rebuke and Camellia Koo’s set design of an oversized representation of a bible (which means “book”) as the main playing surface are examples of a post-modernist frame for Lisa Codrington’s adaptation, a burlesque that has high, almost anarchic energy, vast corn, and some sharp satiric points, but that fails to be as clever or as cutting as its literary source.
Shaw’s story (really a novella) grew from his correspondence with Mabel Shaw (no relation), a white missionary in Northern Rhodesia. A woman with “a craze for self torture,” (in Shaw’s words) who broke off her engagement with a clergyman in order to “bury herself in the wilds of Africa and lead Negro children to Christ,” Mabel was complimented by GBS for her view that a black girl is “much less of a savage than an average post-war flapper.” But what GBS detested was Mabel’s use of the Cross because that symbol turned Christ from a teacher into a figure from the Chamber of Horrors. In Shaw’s story, Christ is portrayed as a poor teacher who is obliged to play a conjuror in order to attract followers who prefer witnessing his “miracles” rather than listening to his preaching.
In Codrington’s adaptation, the Conjuror (Jonathan Tan) is Christ turned into a slim Asiatic male model in dark glasses, which, at least racially, is closer to his biblical predecessor than any white Hollywood or Moral Majority version. However, Codrington’s text and her director’s approach diminish Shaw’s acuity. When the black girl wonders where God is and is told that she should seek in order to find, she goes off into the jungle of Old and New Testaments—where she encounters a Black Mamba (Kiera Sangster), the likes of Micah the Morasthite and King Solomon (both lampooned by Ben Sanders successively), the Lord of Hosts (Bannerman again), The Almighty (Graeme Somerville), and a Caravan of scientists (whose luggage is borne heavily by a Black Bearer). But where GBS was mercilessly probing biblical fables in order to reach their sparkling essences, Codrington is simply reacting to his white male perspective of blackness and black femininity. In other words, where Shaw was donning the mantle of Voltaire to expose and ridicule “Crosstianity” (rather than true Christianity) and other forms of colonialism, Codrington is more focussed on racism. Both playwrights are bold in their re-appropriations, but Codrington lacks real polish.
Her spirited Black Girl poses a challenging question to God: “Why, if you made the world, did you make it so badly?” Surely a question all sceptics have asked, so there is nothing exactly new in this. Micah tears pages off the bible to shreds and then raves. The Caravan of the Curious is a quartet of Mathematician, Physicist, Biologist, and Naturalist, thus covering all the main sciences, and it allows the iconoclastic Naturalist to give an account of how, just as the bible is a book of how an idea developed, GBS’s work is a chronicle of how his ideas developed. Shrewd point, and not the only one in the show, but while there are several witty moments and sequences of effective satire (especially by Tara Rosling’s white missionary, Kiera Sangster’s disaffected snake, and Ben Sanders’s Solomon resigned to a falling out with God), the didactic quality is not elevated enough to represent a profound reaction to Shaw, whose ideas on rationalism and racial fusion gained him notoriety around the world. Some of his ideas (such as his view on racial intermarriage) were treated as a joke in Britain and as blasphemy elsewhere. Codrington’s satire is more of a joke, whose sting is minor. Part of the reason is her simplistic text; another part is Ravi Jain and his cast’s over-indulgence of caricature.