The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-lake has commissioned a new play from Canadian-based playwright John Murrell based on George Bernard Shaw’s satirical work Geneva.

Peace in Our Time: A Comedy is a reworking of one of Shaw’s more difficult plays that is seldom mounted. Geneva is a political comedy set in a dysfunctional diplomatic office just before the beginning of the Second World War and culminates in a trial of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

'He’s made it much more accessible for us without losing the edge that Shaw had'—Jackie Maxwell

"It’s very absurd, it’s very pointed. It’s sort of like a Marx brothers take on politics," says  Shaw Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell. "It’s a fascinating play but it’s dramaturgically tricky. It’s one of those plays I’ve been sending to contemporary writers and asking if they’d like to revision the play."

In Murrell’s hands, it becomes a fast and crazy ride, with new characters and a clearer structure, she told CBC News.

"He’s made it much more accessible for us without losing the edge that Shaw had," Maxwell said.

Peace in Our Time is one of two Shaw plays in the 2013 season announced Monday by Maxwell.

Major Barbara directed by Maxwell

The other play, as Shaw originally wrote it, is Major Barbara, a 1905 play about a Salvation Army major puzzling out whether it is moral to take charitable donations from a whisky distiller and armaments maker. It is eight years since the festival last staged it.

Maxwell herself will direct Major Barbara, which is to be shown in the smaller Royal George theatre, instead of the Festival Theatre.

"It’s very important to me to be doing it in the Royal George because I feel we’ll be doing it in a more intimate way to try to explore it in a completely new way," she said, though she acknowledges the festival has to be 'strategic' about its production of Shaw plays.

In recent years Shaw has fallen out of favour with theatre patrons and the festival, mainly dedicated to the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries, has moved to program fewer of his works.

"I think we’re doing two Shaw plays – we’re doing Geneva, which is never done. I think what we’re doing is we’re taking Shaw and presenting him in a new way," Maxwell argues.

Tom Stoppard a modern Shavian

There is also Arcadia, a play by Tom Stoppard, who Maxwell says is a contemporary thinker in the same mould as Shaw.

"The Shaw spirit is very alive in a lot of contemporary writers — this notion of questioning assumptions and pricking bubbles and questioning authority with great wit. If anybody can be called a contemporary Shavian it’s Tom Stoppard," she says.

The program has a couple of popular musicals – Guys and Dolls and 2003 Tony Award winning hit The Light in the Piazza –about a romance between a young American woman and an Italian man that hits some unexpected obstacles.

Peter Hinton, who ended his term as artistic director of the NAC this summer, is to helm an Oscar Wilde favourite, Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Also in the program:

  • Enchanted April, by Matthew Barber, adapted from a novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim, directed by Maxwell.
  • Our Betters, a comedy by W. Somerset Maugham, directed by Morris Panych.
  • Trifles by Susan Glaspell and A Wife for a Life by Eugene O’Neill, a lunchtime double bill.
  • Faith Healer, by Brian Friel, directed by Craig Hall.