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Theatre Reviews Review: O’Flaherty V.C. at the Shaw Festival is a historical artifact on the madness of war

  • Title: O’Flaherty V.C.
  • Written by: Bernard Shaw
  • Director: Kimberley Rampersad
  • Actors: Patrick McManus, Tara Rosling, Ben Sanders and Gabriella Sundar Singh
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Royal George Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 6

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While there are Irish characters in many of his plays, Bernard Shaw set only three shows in the country where he was born.

O’Flaherty V.C. is one – a short comedy written and set a year into what we now call the First World War – and it drips with as much anger at his homeland as it does at the war.

Private Dennis O’Flaherty (Ben Sanders), recently awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in battle, is back home in Ireland for a recruitment drive with General Pearce Madigan (Patrick McManus).

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The Irish private actually grew up on the English general’s estate in Ireland and, as the two now talk mano-a-mano, O’Flaherty shocks Madigan by sharing his family’s real feelings about the empire they’ve been off defending. He even confesses to having stolen the general’s geese, pretending they had died, and then selling them back to him.

“Often we had to sell our own geese to pay you the rent to satisfy your needs; and why shouldn’t we sell your geese to satisfy ours?” O’Flaherty says.

This is pretty standard comic contrarianism from Shaw – but Sanders gives a performance of uncommon depth as O’Flaherty. You get the feeling he has seen a lot of death; the jokes have a real sharp edge.

Early in the war, Shaw had already seen its pointlessness – he was vilified for his pamphlet Common Sense about the War in 1914 - and he allows the young O’Flaherty to express his opinions. “You’ll never have a quiet world til you knock the patriotism out of the human race,” he says.

Meanwhile, as the English general, McManus huffs and puffs and spends an exceedingly long time not lighting a pipe – a metatheatrical gag much better than watching an actor smoke any of the bad prop cigarettes on the market in these second-hand-smokeless times.

O’Flaherty VC’s runs into the usual Shaw problems: His dialectical dialogue fizzes and pops, but he didn’t bother to think up much of a plot. Here one sort of appears relating to O’Flaherty having misled his mother that he was off fighting against the English – not fighting with them.

The cast of O'Flaherty V.C. at the Shaw Festival.

Emily Cooper/Shaw Festival

Mrs. O’Flaherty is built up for so long before her first appearance – as ignorant, bullying and rabidly anti-English - that it’s perhaps inevitable that she would disappoint as a character. Still, the over-the-top caricatured performance Tara Rosling gives (which she has no doubt been directed to give) pushes the hitherto hearty production off the rails.

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There’s another female character, who barely appears not long after: O’Flaherty’s fiancée Teresa (Gabriella Sundar Singh), written as an Irish golddigger.

So, yes, O’Flaherty VC, which starts brilliantly, is eventually revealed to be a long set-up for a dog of a one-liner: “Do you think that we could have got an army without conscription if domestic life had been as happy as people say it is?”

I’m sure the initial audience got a good laugh out of that. The one-act had its belated premiere in 1917, in an all-male production by British officers in an abandoned Red Cross building on the front lines, as part of an evening that also included a scene from Henry V (also on stage at the Shaw Festival this season).

Fair enough. But what do you do a hundred years later with a First World War play that essentially has the minimizing message that trench warfare might have been awful, but it was better than being with the women?

Director Kimberly Rampersad’s production presents it as a historical artifact. She prefaces the show with some tunes and talk, as the audience is filing in, to give context. There are gestures towards the madness of war in the performance itself, too, and the circumstances of the play’s first showing – the action getting increasingly frenzied and invaded by the sounds of bullets and bombs.

As for those crude caricatures of Mrs O’Flaherty and Teresa, well, Shaw obviously had resentful feelings about Ireland and women and mixed them together. It put me in mind of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in between the writing and the premiere of O’Flaherty, VC, and its infamous line: “Do you know what Ireland is?... Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”

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