My Theatre

02 August 2012

At the Shaw: The Millionairess

By // Theatre

Ugh, Bernie, why do you always do this? What you have in The Millionairess is an amusing character piece starring a bright and clever leading lady whose story speaks to the somewhat unfair but utterly true realities of the class system- it’s the sort of fascinating stuff that not many people have written the like of. But then you, Bernie, you come in with your Issues and you ruin it with big socialist speeches that accomplish nothing, save undermining the great character you’ve spent 2 hours getting me to like- Really, Bernie, get over yourself!

The Millionairess is partially my favourite of the George Bernard Shaw plays I’ve seen produced at the Ontario festival dedicated to him (or, more likely, it falls just below the refreshingly more-personal-than-political Candida). I liked it because it was witty, as usual, but also said something sort of new (which no Shaw play has Ever Done. That was not sarcasm). For 3/4 of The Millionairess’s 2 hours and 20 minutes, it’s an interesting and entertaining exploration of the unfair advantages that come to Epifania Orgnisanti Di Parerga- the richest woman in England. Those advantages include things like the ability to understand money- the power of it, the point of it, how to get it, how to spend it- and natural leadership ability. It’s only the last bit that condescends to Epi, calling her out on every and any negative trait she possesses and blaming it all on her money. That last bit sees how Epi arrived at the hopelessly rundown Pig & Whistle Inn to get a job as a scullery maid then used nothing but savvy and guts to turn the place around and work her way to head honcho, and blames her for the decline of the former owners (one had a stroke, the other has “gone mad”- neither of which can fairly be placed on Epi’s head after she’s said to have paid them “more than they could have hoped to get” for the place). The only way someone could ever see the great achievement described in act four as evidence Against Epi’s character is if they were looking for excuses to hate her. She has plenty of real flaws, can we stop pretending business acumen is one of them?

The Millionairess’s thematic conclusions feel very odd and forced, as though Shaw constructed the play as a fair- if not entirely heroic- character portrait then turned it around at the last minute to make yet another point about the villainous upper-class. What I see when confronted with Epi (played with characteristic dazzle by the endlessly likable Nicole Underhay) is a woman far more competent than everyone else around her (indeed than everyone else period, for the most part). Armed with selfish protective instincts, sharp defenses and a quick trigger for deceit and violence, Epi isn’t easy to love, but she’s very easy to admire. She’s interesting and challenging in a world that likes sweet and silent; she’s savvy and self-improving in a world of compliance, and she may have a stranglehold on her millions but she does because she knows they’re the only bargaining chip she has with a world that doesn’t admire the aforementioned qualities as much as it should. Epi uses her money to protect herself (ensuring she’d win when a lawsuit is filed against her, preventing her husband from filing for divorce) and as a way of holding on to her beloved father who lost most of their fortune before he died and left her with the 30 million she’s hesitant to spend and/or lose now. She’s in the wrong to respond as violently as she does when Steven Sutcliffe’s hapless hanger-on Adrian insults her father’s memory, but it’s a provocation understandable enough that not only does the audience laugh when Epi takes out her aggression, they think nothing of her violence (especially when regaled with the tale of how her low-brow husband once “punched her in the solar plexus”) until it’s used in the great case against her in the play’s final act, at which point everyone pretends they never laughed.

I really might have liked The Millionairess. In fact, I solidly did like the ¾ of it that isn’t textually infuriating, considering that director Blair Williams took a lively and modern approach (at least in tone, if not in period) and designer Cameron Porteous Did Something other than a pretty living room set like everything else at the Shaw (each act has a distinct colour scheme- red, blue, green, gold. I would have liked a program note telling me the significance of each instead of Blair’s heady and useless anti-‘man’ rant, but, hey, I will take what I’m given on this one). The cast is very good and includes many of my favourites- Underhay, Sutcliffe, Happer, Uhre, Bundy- though Robin Evan Willis’s gratingly chipper “Polly” is so fake I could have strangled her (as I’m sure the other 2 audience members on Epi’s side also wanted to do ) and Kevin Hanchard is awkwardly stiff in his uphill battle with “The Doctor” (aka Shaw’s obnoxious speech-spouter). Wendy Thatcher received a round of unexpected applause after her line about not trusting the banks in a role that can only be described as sheltered and misguided (making that laugh all the more worrisome), though I appreciated Michael Ball’s short-lived struggle between Epi’s alluring influence and his wife’s limiting warnings.

The ending of The Millionairess is a load of reverse-classism bull that’s as annoying as it is boring to sit through. The Doctor tells us that Epi should be better, be the person Allah wants her to be (I thought socialists weren’t into god- I’m confused) though she’s surrounded by extortionists (Adrian), sellouts (Sagamore), philanderers (her husband Alistair), and hypocrites (Polly). The truth is that the rich do have advantages, the most interesting and unexplored of which is that those with money are generally better equipped to handle money- it Is easier to make 2 million dollars out of 1million than 10 dollars out of 5, and Epi (having watched her father make and lose his money) knows what risks to take and how to handle business affairs (“Mr. Superflu is Superfluous!”). She doesn’t succeed because she’s exploiting those around her, she succeeds because she’s smart and had the privileged of things like good education and experience and exposure to the world and how it works. I think Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga is pretty damn awesome (impressive and witty and self-assured in the face of people who repeatedly tell her how much they dislike her) even if The Millionairess doesn’t. She rises to the top a little bit because she’s rich but mostly because she’s the cream and the top is where she belongs.

The Millionairess is playing at The Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre until Octobre 6th.  

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