Everyone is familiar with George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, but not everyone may know that Shaw’s fascination with women extended to some of his other works, such as Village Wooing and How He Lied to Her Husband. In the programme’s notes, director Robert Gillespie says that “women frightened Shaw”, and proves this with a quote from Shaw: “I found sex hopeless as a basis for personal relations, and never dreamt of marriage in connection with it”. There is no doubt that in these two short plays, Shaw creates his men based on himself and his women on his experiences.
Village Wooing explores the relationship between a man, called A (Mark Fleischmann), and a woman referred to as Z (Madeleine Hutchins). Evidently Shaw is humouring himself and his audiences that he can tell them everything they need to know about women, from A to Z. A is a traveller on a worldwide cruise and Z, who is a chatty shop assistant, has splurged some winnings on the same cruise.
Z is quite like Henry Higgins as he values class and intellect, and constantly tries to correct the way that A talks. What makes this play so enjoyable is how the actors also manage to make the ‘A to Z’ idea represent the spectrum of two completely contrasting personalities. The notion that a marriage should be based on whether you can “put up” with someone, rather than whether there is actually any attraction, provides quite a thought-provoking ending to this first play.
How He Lied To Her Husband tells the story of an upper-class woman, Aurora (Viss Elliot Safavi), who quickly comes to her senses when some poems written to her by her toyboy Henry (Josh Harper) go missing. Once again, Shaw focuses greatly on the relationship between men and women, except this time there is another man – Aurora’s husband, Teddy (Alan Francis).
This incredible farce, with a fabulous twist on the jealous husband, is acted with all the melodrama the actors can muster. In fact, at times, the melodramatic performances seem somewhat excessive, and draw away from the hilarity of the play. Still, this is a fantastically written play with a great balance of physical comedy and perfectly timed jokes.
Gillespie considers Shaw to be a feminist and so directs both these short plays with this idea in mind. If you just read the scripts, it may be hard to see eye-to-eye with Gillespie on this, especially if you consider how A uses Z’s job to control her, or how Aurora fears her husband might discover her secret. Yet Gillespie’s direction effortlessly extracts the feminist in Shaw and brings this new dimension to his attitude towards women, putting them on top.
Shaw’s Women is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 31 January. For more information and tickets, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website. Photo by Richard Davenport.