This review of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.
The main challenge to anyone producing the story of Liberty Valance is authenticity for the audience. As it stands, the story is set in the wild west, not the sedate south east. It concerns a dispute between a born gunslinger and a novice, leading to a final shoot-out; it is certainly not civilised. The outcome is the violent death of one of the combatants rather than shame in the local press. We are unused to the themes except in the fiction we may have read, or may perhaps still be reading.
Of course none of these discrepancies make it impossible to stage a play about the death of Liberty Valance. We know very well that drama can still be powerfully significant, regardless of the differences in the civilisation of the players or the audience. Sophocles' 'Antigone' or 'Electra' remain close to the reality of our hearts because that is what they deal with - the human heart, its aspirations and failings and its inherent tragedy.
Even so, the question of authenticity remains. A critical eye may well ask whether, despite the differences in background, the play nevertheless speaks to us now. We need not have worried: the customary professionalism and expertise of COPS gave us a memorable and outstanding evening, rich in humanity, combat, human values and aspirations, the things that really matter to us all. We had no need for a senescent John Wayne or James Stewart, with the masterly acting of all members of the cast under the direction of Jan Palmer Sayer.
The first half might almost have a different title, dealing as it does in a range of conflicting themes: education against ignorance, racial hostility, the development of a love affair between two sympathetic and attractive characters, law against lawlessness, government against anarchy and central control set against provincial self-government. We do not hear of the anti-hero until the end of the first act, other than to learn that he led the gang who beat up our Washington lawyer on his travels to Twotrees. He comes into the saloon in pursuit of Jim, the Negro who has been learning to read under the guidance of this same scholar. Such orderliness threatens the lawless way of life of villainous Valance, who ultimately challenges him to a dice game and, when he is called a liar, under the rules of the game, has the honest Jim strung up and lynched by his henchmen.
There was one moment where I found my self a touch puzzled. When Ransome and his wife appear in funeral garb, it is not immediately apparent why, or whose funeral they are attending. They soon tell us that they have come to pay their respects to Bert Barricune - the man who actually fired the fatal shot, and had initially rescued Ransome from a beating out on the prairie. He is probably the real hero of the story.
I found more to think about than I had foreseen or can now expound. The punctuation marks in the script were not full stops or exclamation marks but rather the regular pouring of whiskeys and the forceful pounding of chairs. We rejoiced in the character of Bert, the most natural, the most sympathetic person on the stage and the sad victim of a rival, the 'scholar', for the love of our glorious, strong-minded and lovely barmaid. Bert is a decent man, one who resignedly and nobly accepted his loss.
The entry of Liberty, long awaited, was appropriately dramatic. He loped in menacingly, a powerful and forceful presence, justifying the play's title. His final exchange with Ransome was a fascinating, philosophical dialogue, reflecting on life, death, law, pretence and truth. As he admits, he was not an educated man - but he was certainly intelligent enough to keep his end up in a profound discussion and manifestly had done a lot of thinking about life, death, and what lay in between. We sympathised with the New York lawyer, put into an impossible position: we, too, would have to decide whether to be heroic and face death or to slink away.
The uncomplicated set gave us a complete sense of life as it was. We had a saloon bar on the right where the barmaid could demonstrate that she was largely in charge of proceedings, a couple of tables in front which provided a place for pushing forward what mattered and a clear visual space in between for all the action to take place, as well as a resting place for a coffin. At the same time it was a joy to hear beautifully presented and sung music: the gentle, alert guitar, its melodies picked out in perfect co-ordination with the singer, and the melodious joy of the trio with their masterly harmony and control.
We were not surprised to be presented with Ransom's later life, in which he was shown to have developed in his legal career, largely based on his reputation as 'the man who shot Liberty Valance.' It hardly mattered that he was not: as Bert reminds us, he was 'the man in the story.'
Every feature, every detail of the production led us to watch and to listen as though our lives depended on accurately interpreting everything our senses brought to us. This was a night to remember: I would not have wanted to be anywhere else.
Photographs by Steve Beeston.