Arms and the Man @ Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

George Bernard Shaw points his piercing gaze at the military, and gender politics, and the drawing room comedies of the time. I had no idea what to expect, and again a lovely ‘stream allowed me to access this excellent drama during a week of hideous travel.

Some great comedy as it turned out! From a military family, romantic Raina (Rebecca Collingwood) pines and waits for her heroic fiancee, her knight errant, Sergius (Alex Bhat), a great military leader, and her father, Major Petkoff (Jonathan Tafler) to return from fighting in central Europe. Although they also sound very Oscar Wilde English, they’re Bulgarian! (although her mother veers towards Russian dress like she’s leaving for War and Peace). In the night the peace of her bedroom is suddenly invaded by a fleeing Swiss mercenary who’s hungry for chocolate rather than glory and heroism. Raina hides him and with her mother Catherine (Miranda Foster), helps him to escape — he just wants to sleep!

Sergius returns, with flamboyantly dramatic and impressive poses as does the Major (in a more civilised fashion); and there is a funny stylised meeting of ‘higher love’. Raina swoops and soars and poses — with some great bustle action! Although Sergius turns out to be a deceitful cad, and as soon as Raina is off to get her hat, he’s all over her servant Louka (Kemi Awoderu). Louka is ostensibly engaged to her fellow servant Nicola (Jonah Russell), but seems non-committal about this! With a gentleman seeking to abuse a maid, this scene and behaviour is really creepy. However Shaw gives an amazing voice and self-possessed defiance and self-respect to Louka — with prototype Eliza Dolittle fizzing out of her, she scorns his advances and attempts to use her, rebukes him for misusing his position and status and utterly annihilates him. She shames him — surely Raina will see them! However she isn’t entirely immune to his person and happy to drop some scruples with this engaged man, if there is proper respect. It gets her a bracelet which she dramatically displays later on. Mostly it’s down to the skill of the actors that this scene doesn’t make us all feel ill with the #MeToo movement of today.

Raina returns to her deceptive finance, complete with hat and suddenly her Swiss soldier returns, to return her father’s borrowed coat. He is now known to Sergius and the Major, and incredibly useful — churning out administrative solutions like a human email system. The Major is shocked to find that his ‘missing’ coat has been hung up in the closest all along, as is Raina, who has left an autographed photo of herself in the pocket of the coat for her mysterious soldier. Not to mention Nicola, who suddenly becomes both forgetful and clumsy — talking the Swiss soldier’s luggage away when he’s to stay, and ‘breaking’ chocolate soldiers in the kitchen — Raina’s cover for blurting out her nickname for her mysterious night visitor, her ‘chocolate soldier’. Tension rises between Raina and her mother as a story is increasingly being gossiped about which sounds suspiciously like the events of the night in Raina’s bedroom.

Increasingly jealous as a story is circulating about a daughter and mother hiding and helping an enemy soldier (and alarmed by avoiding a potential reveal), Sergius and Raina can no longer be together. Sergius also wants to leave the army, toppling his ideal as a hero in Raina’s eyes. In a humourous moment, Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann) cooly churns out paperwork and Sergius strains all his brain cells to add his signature to them with a quill pen. Everything is ticking along smoothly. About to leave, he tries to resolve the conflict between Sergius and Raina and get them talking to each other again. He is all logic, rationality and solution focus! (Unlike Sergius and Raina who are all manner and high emotion).

Honourable at last, Sergius chooses Louka and Nicola is completely unbothered at losing his fiance. The amiable ‘chocolate soldier’ prepares to leave to. In a sudden whirl of his events, his father dies and the news arrives that he has inherited a chain of luxury hotels. Raina isn’t sure that she wants to be with a hotel proprietor, sneaking the souvenir photo from her father’s coat pocket and destroying it— although he does deeply impress her parents with his collection of horses, establishments, table cloths and cutlery! Raina longs for military romance…and feels bought by this itemised list of goods.

There is another funny moment when Bluntschli discusses Raina’s age — making her much younger than she is! Just see her face…

It looks like Raina and Bluntschli will not get together — he’s too much of an administrator now (and he’s only impressed her parents with his list of goods and services). But he declares himself her chocolate soldier again, and then in true Swiss fashion, smartly departs keeping to time and with a promise to return next week. Romance is broken, or perhaps put on hold, for Swiss adminstration, busy industry and time precision!

Beautifully directed by Paul Miller, what could have been quite dry in parts became fun, but balanced out the characters, dialogues and physical comedy, not allowing the fun to overwhelm the serious points made, mocking the deeply militarised society of the time.

@ Photos are taken from the streamed production of Arms and the Man, belong to the Orange Tree Theatre’s production and are used purely to illustate the authors points, January 2023



Cultures: Arts Reviews and Views by Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!