George Bernard Shaw’s Too True to Be Good is a play that irritates me greatly, though director Sanjay Talwar’s stylish and nuanced production for the Shaw Festival does allay much of its tedium. The ensemble cast, with their colourful delivery, turn these walking diatribes into something resembling people.
We open rather conventionally an a lavish bedroom where Miss Mopply (Donna Soares) writhes about in feverish agony. Mrs Mopply (Jenny L. Wright) clomps frantically about her, doing little good, but making a grand show of motherly concern. The doctor too is fairly useless, prescribing whichever potions the squawking mother demands.
This domestic scene is punctured by the arrival of a Nurse and Burglar conspiring to steal Miss Mopply’s valuable pearl necklace. As she befriends these thieves—the crass yet passionate Sweetie (Marla McLean) and the persuasive fop, Popsy (Graeme Somerville)—Mopply discovers she isn’t as sick as she imagined; it was was just the burden of a proper, aristocratic life that kept her downtrodden. She, in a sense, elopes with the two, deciding to sell her own neckless and split the proceeds.
A Microbe (Travis Seetoo) figures prominently here. He is the first sign of the play’s surrealist slant as he complains that it was, in fact, the sickly patient who infected him. In his outfit, costume designer Joyce Padua offers the most fanciful aesthetic, draping him in iridescent plumes that lend him an exotic dignity.
The rest of the play takes place at beachside army encampments where our ragtag trio, disguised as foreign nobles and servant, meet some eccentric army figures. The first is Colonel Tallboys, played with an endearing bluster by Neil BarClay. I particularly enjoyed the comic dynamic between him and a Private Meeks. As this unassuming underling, Jonathan Tan is a wide-eyed, grounded presence, who proves himself to be, with the least fanfare, the most sensible of the lot.
Martin Happer is charming as the religious Sargeant Fielding, who develops an infatuation with Sweetie. And the final act sees some reunions: Miss Mopply with her mother and Popsy with his disappointed father (Patrick Galligan).
Shaw had a number of things to say here about the state of human morale and morality after the devastation of the first world war. He also discusses the folly of limiting your understanding of the world to a single perspective. Instead of developing these ideas dramatically, though, Shaw has his characters sermonize at other and the audience.
He was quite aware of his bombast and addresses it formally. A central figure here is a self-avowed preacher and the first of the three acts concludes with the Microbe stating: “the play is now virtually over, but the characters will discuss it at great length for two acts more.”
Though it can be quite funny, bursting with ideas that still resonate, and has a few genuinely poignant moments, the play’s text is overwrought and indulgent. I was quite won over, however, by this production. I’m a sucker for solid, imaginative execution and that is exactly what is offered here.
Sue LePage’s set is minimal yet evocative—the trappings of affluence giving way to the dusty, sea-swept textures of sand, stone and shell. A surprising theatrical flourish is the decision to stage elaborate scene changes just before each intermission. Movement director Alexis Milligan imbues these practical intrusions with whimsy and spectacle.
Too True to Be Good is admirably compelling theatre forged out of a mediocre play.