By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Michael Friend
Michael Friend Productions
Venue: Mill Studio
Date: Friday 28th February 2014
This little-seen Shaw play was paired with another one-act piece by the same author, The Fascinating Foundling. They were both amusing, and while the Foundling was like a Gilbertian mini-farce, Man Of Destiny had a bit more to it, and we could certainly see the influence of Arms And The Man in the discussions between Napoleon and the Strange Lady. We were glad to have caught this performance, especially as we’re not likely to see these anywhere else.
The set consisted of a wide swathe of green carpet, suggestive of grass, a backdrop showing a large house with one wing coming forward on the left side, a doorway in the appropriate place on that side and a table with two chairs in the middle of the stage; the table was laid with some plates and a glass. There was a bench on the left with a bottle on it and another bench tucked away in the far right corner. I wasn’t sure if the space was indoors or outdoors – the program specifies the courtyard of an inn, which would account for the ambiguity.
When the lights rose, we saw Napoleon sitting at the table studying a large piece of paper, presumably a map. There was some banter between Giuseppe, the elderly innkeeper, and Napoleon which referenced the military man’s penchant for drinking blood (metaphorical, we assumed) and then we learned of a woman who had arrived riding a charger, a most unusual mount for a woman. Then Napoleon’s lieutenant arrived, very upset because he’d lost his horse. Or rather, his horse had been stolen by a young soldier who had also made off with the General’s dispatches. As the feminine characteristics of the young soldier gradually emerged from the lieutenant’s rambling discourse we soon spotted the obvious connection, and I’m glad to say that Napoleon did as well. He sent the lieutenant off to have some food, and ordered Giuseppe to bring the Strange Woman to him immediately.
The following scenes were largely a debate between Napoleon and the woman; she wanted to keep him from reading a particular letter, he wanted to find out what was in it without going to the trouble of reading it himself. It became clear that the letter in question had been written by or about an affair between a married woman and another man, with the inference being that the lady in question was none other than Josephine, Napoleon’s wife. Amongst all this sparring, we enjoyed Napoleon’s efforts to deny that he was intent on world domination, although his description of the English character went on a bit too long (the author’s fault, not the actor’s).
Overall though the circuitous verbal battle between the two characters worked well, and became all the more amusing when Napoleon ordered his lieutenant to find the young soldier and retrieve the missing dispatches (and the horse). Since the dispatches in question were safely tucked into Napoleon’s jacket by this time, the order was slightly cruel, but the Strange Woman saved the day by reappearing in her soldier’s disguise and surrendering to the lieutenant – hooray! And he got his horse back.
The play ended with the woman setting fire to the letter; it was as if Napoleon had never received it, which had been her intent all along – to save her friend from being discovered. As the lights went out, the actors left the stage but there was no applause, as the ending had caught us all by surprise. The lieutenant, now changed into civvies, quickly cleared the table and we were soon into the second piece, The Fascinating Foundling.
This was a very slight story poking fun at wards of court, matrimony and the legal system. A young man, fond of declaiming Shakespearean-style verse, entered the Lord Chancellor’s office and demanded that the Lord Chancellor find him a wife. Not too young or good-looking, mind you, but a motherly sort who would take care of him and support him in his chosen career of acting. As a ward of the court, he felt it was the Lord Chancellor’s duty, in loco parentis, to sort out this kind of thing.
The Lord Chancellor agreed to look for a suitable candidate, but no sooner had the young man departed than someone else was knocking at the door. This time it was a young woman, who wanted the Lord Chancellor’s help to find her a husband. She had no idea who her parents were as she had been left on a doorstep as a baby, so she also needed help in finding a partner. She was desperate to meet a man she could devote herself to, giving him all the love that was aching to come out of her.
We could see where this was heading – it wasn’t difficult – and sure enough, the young man came back to retrieve his walking stick and boom! – she snagged him. He was a bit reluctant at first as she was younger than he had stipulated, but her personality was stronger than his and he wilted. The Lord Chancellor was satisfied, and that was that.
There was also the Lord Chancellor’s clerk, Mercer, played by Karl Niklas who had played Napoleon in the earlier play. We enjoyed his entertaining comments, his provision of a newspaper article which was deeply critical of the Lord Chancellor and an engaging duel which almost took place using fire irons, and it was particularly interesting to see two such different performances in the same evening. The rest of the cast did very well too, and it was a shame that the performance wasn’t better attended, although the return of the wet weather may not have helped.