The working classes are binge drinking and have no job security, the middle classes are worrying about their inheritances, the government is being dictated to by big corporations who are developing weapons of mass destruction, the rich are getting too rich and are giving money to charity out of self-interest, and there's lots of casual violence towards women. No, Bernard Shaw isn't out of date at all. Major Barbara may have been written more than a century ago in 1905, but its arguments about pious morality, humbug and hypocrisy come up fresh as a daisy in this excellent revival at the Olivier by Nicholas Hytner. On the journalistic principle that man bites dog is always a better story, it might be interesting to report a Hytner production that fails miserably. No such luck. Here's another big-stage triumph for the National Theatre. Michael Billington complained a year or two ago that the National was neglecting Shaw, probably the most successful British playwright of the first half of the last century. Hytner took the hint, and now we've had two of his big plays in quick succession -- first Saint Joan and now Major Barbara. Even people like me who have always thought of Shaw as a political noodle (he was a notorious apologist for Stalin in the 1930s) have to admit that the arguments in this play haven't dated. His plays have an absurd, mischievous streak that makes them a lot more fun than those of his Edwardian contemporary Harley Granville-Barker.
Sometimes it's good to come to the theatre in a position of total ignorance, without having read or seen the text and not knowing the story. I had never seen Major Barbara until last night's preview, so I wasn't able to make odious comparisons with other productions; I just watched it with increasing delight. It lasts nearly three hours, but it didn't seem too long. And there's a butler by the name of Morrison! Shaw's dramatic principle was always to give the most unpleasant characters the best lines. Occasionally his clever paradoxes seem too forced and his implausible plotting seems to owe something to W.S. Gilbert, but the play's strengths are much greater than its weaknesses. I wonder whether the writing of David Hare and other political playwrights of today will stand up as well when another century has passed. Simon Russell Beale is on top form as Undershaft the arms magnate, and so is Clare Higgins as his estranged wife. Hayley Atwell, who was a striking Belinda in Hytner's Man of Mode on the same stage last year, is equally impressive as daughter Barbara, the Salvation Army major who can't face the idea of accepting money from her father. Unfortunately in Act 3 Shaw leaves her to languish in the background, switching the focus to her fiance Adolphus, only remembering her presence in the final ten minutes. Paul Ready as Adolphus the professor of Greek is equally good, and so are the minor characters. Hytner has been known for his radical modern dress updating of plays such as Henry V, The Man of Mode and The Alchemist, but on this occasion he shows he's just as adept when he keeps the play in period. Unlike the National's irritating production last year of Gorky's Philistines, this staging wisely keeps everything exactly in 1905 (no silly vacuum cleaners), and the designer Tom Pye, better known in the world of opera, should be on the awards shortlists this time next year. The best moment is the stunning opening to Act 3, when the stage becomes an arms foundry, filled with row upon row of giant shells descending from above. Before that, the play is set in a plush Edwardian drawing room and a Salvation Army hostel. In the drawing room scenes I was reminded of a visit I made last year to Cragside, the country home of the great Tyneside arms magnate William Armstrong. In the foundry scene, Undershaft's disapproving family is stunned to discover that in many ways he is a model paternalist employer, paying his workers well and building welfare facilities for them -- just as the Edwardian soap magnate Lord Leverhulme did at Port Sunlight, which I visited earlier this month.