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- Dr. Nakamura in Happy End, and Peter Shirley in Major Barbara at the Shaw Festival
VIEW Magazine - July, 2005
by Kerry Corrigan
There’s a smorgasbord of political activism wrapped in artistic acumen at the Shaw Festival that will especially appeal to any left leaning audience goers. But that’s certainly not a prerequisite for loving these shows.
George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara serves as a companion piece to Happy End, the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical. They often play on the same day, making it possible to make a day of it with a matinee and an evening performance. And they each feature Dundas native Jay Turvey in integral and challenging roles.
Both use humour to massage the message, while delivering a polemic on worker’s suffering and the plight of the lower classes. More commonalities include the use of the Salvation Army as the quintessential example of selfless altruism; both feature fervently committed lasses whose Army dogma fails them in their hour of need.
In Shaw’s examination of post-industrialized England’s proletariat ravaged by the greed of capitalism, the title character ministers to the dregs of society, steadfastly refusing any financial help from her father’s war time profiteering.
Turvey appears in a small but fascinating role as a man whose plight might be likened to anyone forced into mandatory retirement.
On stage his body control is as impeccable as his timing. In the real, he’s compact, rather soft-spoken, and a gentleman. He’s also relaxed, which seems incredible considering he’s between shows, but intense when talking about his craft. His quick friendliness makes him a great interview; his pleasant features just make you happy to be sitting at the same table.
Discussion of Major Barbara at the Festival Theatre turns serious quickly.
“It’s a great piece, I just love doing it, it’s got so much, it’s so relevant. After what just happened in London recently….,” Turvey remembers.
“I woke up in the morning, and I thought, ‘we’re going to do Major Barbara today, and we’ve got a man … (in the play and) the only way to make change, in his opinion, is to blow people up’.”
He’s referring, of course, to munitions tycoon Andrew Undershaft, the “Prince of Darkness” antagonist in Shaw’s play who speaks cavalierly about 300 men blown up in a fort, testament to the efficacy of his marvelous new bombs.
The play culminates with Undershaft, his Salvation Army daughter Barbara and her fiancée, the Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins, in an intellectual face-off, a triad of body, soul and intellect over the moral responsibilities of man. When Undershaft admonishes his future son-in-law that, if he has qualms about running a munitions factory, he should “fight war with war”, what’s the difference between that and the moral code instilled into suicide bombers in London undergrounds?
Turvey affirms that the tragedy affected the mood backstage. “I think what it does is it charges you because you realize what you’re doing is relevant.
“I think that’s why (Artistic Director) Jackie (Maxwell) puts on pieces like these, because she knows they’re relevant. You could tell that the audience was particularly sensitive to what was going on.”
That’s not the only bit in this play, which debuted in 1905, that remains current.
Known more for his work in musical theatre, Turvey contributes a chilling turn as down-on-his-luck Peter Shirley, only 46 but forced out of work due to age.
“Holy God! I've worked ten to twelve hours a day since I was thirteen, and paid my way all through; and now am I to be thrown into the gutter and my job given to a young man that can do it no better than me because I've black hair that goes white at the first change?” he asks in the play in an anguished cry, in authentic London accent.
A man forced to accept meagre charity from the local Salvation Army, Shirley engenders incredible sympathy in Turvey’s hands, tempered with a splash of his trademark physical humour.
Turvey also plays one of the lead roles in Happy End - the Japanese gangster Dr. Nakamura.
The musical is a remount of a production from two years ago; Turvey brings back his marvelous tongue-in-cheek Japanese accent, right out of a Charlie Chan backlot, including requisite karate choppy moves.
He recalls rehearsing his Major Barbara scene over and over again, and then moving on to rehearsals for Happy End. “It was a bit of a challenge because it’s pretty full-throttle vocally. That musical isn’t miced, there’s no microphone, so you’re singing acoustically over a ten piece band, including horns. And because it’s Brechtian violence, it’s got a lot of attack to it, you know?
“I love it! There’s a lot of visceral energy to that one. Balancing the two was a big adjustment for me, I’d say.”
Shaw paints the Salvation Army lasses as morally unassailable, but with Brecht things are little more carefree. Instead of scholars debating the merits of charity, we have Chicago gangsters - as imagined by Communist German playwrights in1929 – whose idea of charity is pulling heists, no guilt attached. The social message here is as much about helping yourself as helping others, delivered in Brecht’s intellectualized style, dubbed “alienation”, which makes this epic theatre as far from the studied realism of Shaw’s comedy as possible.
That means exaggerated costumes, obvious choreographed reactions, loud stamping dance routines, on a set all angles that seems to almost spill into the tiny audience area of the Royal George Theatre. The colour palette features black or sepia, or gray, contrasting with the navy uniforms of the Salvation Army, and the delivery is right out front.
It’s a “larger than life show’” filled with “larger than life characters which is very liberating,” admits Turvey with a grin. He contrasts it with the “quiet truth” that comes out in the Shaw comedy.
“I was very gratified because I went to Germany last year and saw a play at the Berliner Ensemble, a Brecht play, and I felt like we were right on the money. We had done what I think Brecht would have wanted.”
With two shows in one day, Turvey has to be very careful to conserve his energy, making sure he gets enough sleep, and watching how much he speaks during the day.
When I mention that, given the demands he faces, I was surprised that he would agree to meet between shows for an interview, he casts his eyes downs and states, “It was a weak moment”, then counters quickly with a laugh, “no, no, it’s fine,” because it’s Sunday.
“There’s this kind of thing at the end of the week, the sense of the last day of the week, the last show of the week, people tend to kind of go for broke a little bit more because they know they’ve got a day off coming (Monday) and there’s a lot of good will usually among the people – it’s like Casual Friday, or whatever they have at the office,” he says with a laugh, “where people kind of loosen up a bit.”
With only one day off a week, holidays and long weekends just don’t apply, but Turvey isn’t complaining, far from it.
“It’s a fantastic place to work. Really, I feel very fortunate to be here.”
While a student at Parkside High School, and then at McMaster, where he studied English and French, Turvey had “quite a few” amateur roles at Dundas Little Theatre, in such plays as Of The Fields Lately, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, also the Seagull at Village Theatre and The Diary of Anne Frank at the Players’ Guild.
His summer job while at Mac was singing at Canada’s Wonderland. “That’s how I paid my tuition!” and after that came auditions in Toronto, and stints in Cats, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and, eventually, Zazu in The Lion King.
He loved musical theatre, still does, but acting ambitions lead him to the Shaw Festival where he’s getting his chance to showcase his dramatic side. “I just wanted to try to balance things out,” he says, rather tentatively. “It feels like maybe here I can do both.”
His other quite successful side is in writing. Turvey and his musical collaborator Paul Sportelli wrote Little Mercy’s Little Murder, a musical that won seven Dora Awards at Toronto’s Tarragon theatre. It will be performed in Calgary and Vancouver this year.
They’re latest collaboration is Tristan, based on a Thomas Mann short story, which will be presented at a musical reading, Aug. 21 at 7 pm and Sept. 1 at 1 pm, directed by Jackie Maxwell.
Turvey lauds Maxwell for giving him the chance to perform a non-singing role in Major Barbara. “She’s given lots of people opportunities. . . . This place doesn’t peg you.”
But he is well aware that actors are also hired season to season, “even people who have been here for twenty years tell you that you never assume that you’re coming back.
“It’s a dangerous thing to get comfortable anywhere, and as soon as you do … sometimes you get a rude awakening.”
// tie dye