The Apple Cart
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 21, 2005
Who in the world but George Bernard Shaw would write a "political extravaganza" like The Apple Cart, half of whose action takes place at cabinet meetings? And where in the world would you hope to see a revival of this 1929 comedy except at a first-rate off-off-Broadway company such as Theater Ten Ten?
Well I say, bless 'em both: Shaw, even at his most cantankerous, is more amusing and edifying than almost anybody else who ever wrote a play; and Ten Ten, diverging here from their usual winter Shakespeare offering, is adventurous and high-spirited as ever, belying their uptown address. Director David Scott has assembled a splendid and versatile cast and staged Shaw's show with intelligence and humor; and he's abetted by designers Kristin Foti (sets), George Gountas (lighting), and especially Viviane Galloway and Marissa McCullough (costumes and hair/makeup, respectively) to create a relatively lavish and imaginative world in which to place Shaw's fanciful political vision. Indeed, one of my favorite moments in the production comes with the first entrance of the Cabinet, each of whom has been outfitted to look like one or another famous British archetype (Neville Chamberlain, for example; or that musty, infinitely elderly British aristocrat epitomized by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins).
The Apple Cart, more of a ramble on the themes of democracy and politics than a well-made play, charts a day in the lives of King Magnus of England and his closest associates. It begins with a "crisis" brewing in the papers and among the King's ministers, climaxes with a series of political maneuvers that would have done LBJ or Tricky Dick Nixon proud, and then wanes with a new looming crisis—a surprise that Shaw doesn't even try to work out. It's told in two acts and an interlude, each of them quite different thematically and stylistically from the others, which means that The Apple Cart is both looser and less satisfying that it could be.
But the stuff that gets talked about and articulated here! In Act I, the "crisis" revolves around the fact that the King has reminded the general population, in a speech, that he has the power of royal veto; his ministers are upset not that he has this power but that he has been talking about it. The Prime Minister, Proteus, gives Magnus an ultimatum, essentially forcing him to choose between being an absolute monarch, which he can not, or a figurehead "constitutional" monarch, which he will not. During the entertaining speechifying and posturing, Shaw's characters talk about all manner of interesting things, such as the dangers of big business, the worthlessness of most politicians, the public's fascination with royalty ("A king is not allowed the luxury of a good character. Our country has produced millions of blameless greengrocers but not one blameless monarch."), and the resemblance of any throng of common men to so many sheep. Shaw considers, but never decides, whether democracy can ever really work; and he debates (with startling prescience), the inertia of a complacent polity, well-fed by the spoils of their visionary imperialism. Almost as an after thought, he gives us rich, provocative arguments like this one:
MAGNUS: Is it not curious how people idealize their rulers? In the old days, the king—poor man!—was a god, and was actually called God and worshipped as infallible and omniscient. That was monstrous— But was it half so silly as our pretence that he is an indiarubber stamp? .... What man has ever been able to pick him up from the table and use him as one picks up and uses a piece of wood and brass and rubber? Permanent officials of your department will try to pick you up and use you like that. Nineteen times out of twenty you will have to let them do it, because you cannot know everything; and even if you could, you cannot do everything and be everywhere. But what about the twentieth time?.... The old divine theory worked because there is a divine spark in us all; and the stupidest or worst monarch or minister, if not wholly god, is a bit of a god—an attempt at a god—however little the bit and unsuccessful the attempt. But the indiarubber stamp theory breaks down in every real emergency, because no king or minister is the very least little bit like a stamp: he is a living soul.
The interlude, following intermission, finds Magnus in the company of his mistress, Orinthia; the feel of the piece now is high drawing room comedy, though there's still room for a kind of political discourse:
ORINTHIA: But do not pretend that people become great by doing great things. They do great things because they are great.... Thank God my self-consciousness is something nobler than vulgar conceit in having done something. It is what I am, not what I do, that you must worship in me. If you want deeds, go to your men and women of action, as you call them, who are all in a conspiracy to pretend that the mechanical things they do, the foolhardy way they risk their worthless lives, or their getting up in the morning at four and working sixteen hours a day for thirty years, like coral insects, make them great. What are they for? these dull slaves? To keep the streets swept for me.
In the final act, we meet the king's wife, Queen Jemima, who is quite Orinthia's opposite, and we meet an ambassador from America with a proposition that I'll not reveal here. And then the King comes back to face his ministers, and lays them an ingenious trap that proves who is the superior player of political games. It's satisfying in its way, but it has almost nothing to do with the philosophizing of Act One, which I found problematic.
Yet, see The Apple Cart because the density, probity, challenge, and sophistication is unmatched almost anywhere else. Scott's production keeps the talky text progressing at a swift clip, and emphasizes the humor and the irony, which are both abundant. The cast is led by Nicholas Martin-Smith, in fine form as the smooth and clever King, with able support from Cristiane Young as his strongest supporter in the cabinet, the Powermistress General Lysistrata; Damian Buzzerio as the excitable, kilt-clad Prime Minister Proteus; and Annalisa Loeffler as the glamorous Orinthia. Paula Hoza does double duty as Queen Jemima and Postmistress General Amanda, while Elizabeth Fountain tackles three roles as the King's secretary Sempronius, his daughter Alice, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Pliny; both astound with quick changes in costume and demeanor that keep us guessing who's playing who until we consult the program.