George Bernard Shaw’s “Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes” is difficult to describe and characterise.
On the surface, it is an old-fashioned country house farce, featuring a familiar roll-call of archetypes from the English class-system. So we have eccentric military types, dotty toffs, and bourgeois social climbers.
The humour is often as broad, relying on prat-falls and farcical misunderstandings. One character is believed to have died, for example, before he wakes from a hypnosis-induced catatonic state.
Yet scratch away at the lacquered surface and we find a darker and more didactic narrative. The play was published and performed shortly after the end of World War 1. Britain’s population had been assured that the conflict would last mere months and be ended by a decisive knockout blow.
After four years of grinding mechanised slaughter, people were no longer willing to doff their caps and defer to their superiors. I suspect the stupidity and venality of the upper-class characters seemed less funny to audiences of the day.
The house of the title, Shotover’s home, is literally ship-shaped. These people, it seems, are driving the great ship of state into the rocks. As the audience, we are meant to feel as powerless in the face of such thanatotic madness as the populace during the great war. These people who are supposed to know better, know nothing at all.
Whatever anger the audience felt is even shared by Shaw’s characters. As Billington points out, they seem to exhibit a “pervasive disillusion…a collective death wish” reflected in Captain Shotover’s attempt to invent a super-weapon and their decision in the final scene to make a target of themselves by illuminating the house during a bombing raid. Although, for reasons I shall shortly explain, I only know this element of the plot from Billington’s description.
Droll and Folly brought a light tone to the heavy weight of the play, bringing out the farcical elements without undercutting the necessary seriousness of the drama. On a large stage in a sea-front open-air setting, the ensemble cast perforce played it big and bold. They seemed to enjoy it. I certainly did, and will keep an eye for their productions in future.
It was the heavy weather which proved their greatest enemy. After several temporary breaks to allow heavy downpours to pass, the play was called off completely with twenty minutes yet to go. It was the correct decision, given the need to protect the actors’ wellbeing in the face of such awful and unpredictable weather. Yet it left me with a minor quandary.
There is no way I’m seeing 100 and 4/5ths of the greatest plays. Can I round this one up? That seems like cheating. Find another one? That’s adding even more plays to an already long list.
Maybe I can rustle up some friends to put on the final few scenes over dinner. What do you think, gang?