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SCRUTINY | Shaw Festival’s ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ Is A Whole New Ballgame

By Paula Citron on August 28, 2021

Shaw Festival’s ‘The Devil’s Disciple’
Katherine Gauthier, Martin Happer and Graeme Somerville in Shaw Festival’s ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ (Photo: Lauren Garbutt)

Shaw Festival/The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Eda Holmes, Nona Macdonald Stage, Jul. 14 to Oct. 9.

There are actually two plays going on in the Shaw Festival’s production of The Devil’s Disciple by the titular playwright — an unbearably slow first act, and a lively second one. After the intermission, it is a whole new ballgame.

Written in 1897, The Devil’s Disciple was G.B. Shaw’s eighth play, but his first financial success thanks to its American run. That success, in fact, gave Shaw the financial cushion to become a fulltime playwright.

The main plot device — someone heroically standing in for someone else — was not a new idea. Author Charles Dickens used it in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), as did composer Johann Strauss ll in the operetta Die Fledermaus (1874).

The Devil’s Disciple takes place in 1777 in New Hampshire during the American Revolution. In the play, the village wastrel, Richard Dudgeon (Martin Happer), takes the place of the Presbyterian minister, Rev. Anthony Anderson (Graeme Somerville). when the British army comes to arrest the latter as a rebel. The title of the play refers to Dudgeon’s self-proclaimed pronouncement that he is an apostate.

The leading female role is Judith Anderson (Katherine Gauthier) who switches her love to Dudgeon, whom she thinks of as a hero, while believing her husband to be a coward.

Over the years, Eda Holmes has proven to be one of the Shaw Festival’s most reliable directors, so the slow and draggy first act is inexplicable, given her outstanding reputation. In her defence, however, several factors could be at play here (pardon the pun).

The production is not helped by being staged in a tent as theatre-in-the-middle, with the audience on both sides. There is a lot of wordage and little action, and for the most part, the actors face each other in frozen tableaux. The audience rarely gets to see an actor in full face. It’s also cumbersome watching their comings and goings, on and off the stage.

Shaw is also a culprit because he saves his most juicy dialogue for the appearance of the droll General Burgoyne (the brilliant Tom McCamus), and with the coming of Gentleman Johnny, the play comes alive. The first act (which encompasses Acts 1 and 2 of the play) is seemingly short on Shavian wit.

Happer and Somerville are strong actors with strong voices that carry throughout the tent, but their first act pacing might as well be underwater. Another problem is the miscast Gauthier as Judith Anderson.

The role needed one of the big-voiced Shaw Festival actresses who can dominate the stage. Gauthier is just too light for the role — light of tone, light of projection, light of stature. Judith has to be a force of nature, and Gauthier, who is just fine in other roles, is just not a Shavian heroine, at least, not in this play.

Among the secondary characters, Kristopher Bowman (Major Swindon), Peter Millard (Sergeant), and Chick Reid (Ann Dudgeon) give a good account of themselves, but sad to say, the legendary Shaw ensemble just doesn’t catch fire until it is almost too late. McCamus as Burgoyne literally carries the second act by feeding energy to everyone else.

As for theatrical values, Paul Sportelli has composed attractive heraldic music, Gillian Gallow’s costumes are nicely period, and Michael Gianfrancesco’s set pieces suit the scene.

There is one directorial touch that should be singled out. The first act ends with the arrest of Dick Dudgeon, and Holmes has him being marched off the stage, out of the tent, across the parking lot, and into the trees that line the street. That, I have to day, is a delight to watch.

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Paula Citron
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