BBC Radio 3, 21 March 2010
David Timson's revival contained some notable central performances. As Bluntschli, Rory Kinnear lived up to his name - a blunt, no-nonsense professional soldier with little time for the social pretensions of the Petkoff household. He was at his best during the long exchange with Raina (Lydia Leonard), where his pragmatic view of military life - in which only the fittest survive, and everyone looks after themselves first and foremost, contrasted with her romantically-inspired views of war as an heroic test of masculinity. While Kinnear's handling of the play's romantic elements - notably his secret affection for Raina - seemed not particularly convincing (one wondered why such a pragmatic person would ever fall for an innocent aristocrat), we undertood why he continued in his chosen profession. Concepts such as winning or losing battles didn't matter to him; so long as he got paid at the end, then he was happy.
Louka (Jo Herbert) adopted an equally down-to-earth view of life. Although a servant, she was also an incorrigible social climber, who willingly sacrificed her relationship with her middle-aged fellow worker Nicola (Glen McCready), once Sergius (Tom Mison) had chosen her. Loyalty to her mistress Raina did not matter; if Louka could gain some capital by telling everyone of Raina's involvement with Bluntschli, then she would have no hesitation in doing so.
By contrast Sergius (Tom Mison) seemed somewhat uncomfortable with his appointed social role as an aristocrat. Although mouthing the accepted platitudes about chivalry and honour - at one point challenging Bluntschli to a duel - we knew that he did not really believe in them. If he had fought Bluntschli with swords, or machine guns (as Bluntschli rather acidly suggested), Sergius would inevitably have come off the worst. At the end it seemed somehow fitting that he broke off his engagement to Raina and chose Louka instead; the servant was both socially and emotionally much closer to him.
The only character who really enjoyed his aristocratic background was Paul Petkoff (Hugh Ross). He freely admitted that he had no aptitude whatsoever as a soldier, and willingly relied on Bluntschli's judgement to help him bring the conflict with the Serbs to an end. At the same time Paul had an endearingly pragmatic world-view; if Bluntschli could help him, and be well remunerated for his efforts, then Paul's position at the top of the social tree would be consolidated.
While Timson's production brought out the play's social issues, I cannot say that it was particularly funny. Perhaps the characterizations were just too edgy; one could understand why Sergius felt such animosity towards Bluntschli. Socially there was little to distinguish between them, despite Sergius' airs. Similarly Louka had little time for her mistress' romantic nonsense; after all, Louka had to spend her life in servitude as a result. Nonetheless, I have to congratulate Timson on an intelligent reading of Shaw's comedy - a very different interpretation from that of John Tydeman in the 1980s revival for Radio 4 (rebroadcast last year on Radio 7).