The National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, directs the production, which launches this year's Travelex £10 season, in which a majority of the tickets are sold for £10 (with some at £25 and £30).
Also in the cast are Paul Anderson, Tom Andrews, Ian Burfield, Katharine Burford, Martin Chamberlain, Alasdair Craig, Patrick Drury, Keiran Flynn, Jessica Gunning, John Heffernan, Derek Howard, Stephanie Jacob, Barbara Kirby, Maggie McCarthy, Pamela Merrick, Richard Shanks and Lizzie Winkler.
In Major Barbara, written in 1905, the titular character (Atwell) works tirelessly for the poor at a Salvation Army shelter until a large but morally dubious donation is welcomed from her estranged father, a millionaire weapons manufacturer called Andrew Undershaft (Beale). But when she visits the factory itself, the well-fed workers in their thriving model town make a devastating case for arms trade profits and a whole new set of ideals. According to the publicity materials, "The National's recent production of Saint Joan suggested that Shaw may be our most provocative contemporary playwright," and Major Barbara is described as a "radical state-of-the-nation play which confronts the big questions with brutal panache."
Beale was recently seen at the National in Much Ado About Nothing, also directed by Hytner, in which he played Benedick opposite Zoe Wanamaker's Beatrice. He is a regular player at the National Theatre, where his previous roles include playing Mosca in Volpone opposite Michael Gambon, George in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers (later in the West End and on Broadway), originating the lead in Humble Boy (subsequently in the West End), Hamlet (also on tour), Candide, Money, Summerfolk and the title role in The Life of Galileo and Face in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. Before joining the National Theatre, he had also been a star player at the RSC, where he appeared in productions of The Man of Mode, Restoration, The Seagull, Ghosts, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida and The Tempest. Other major appearances include the title role in Uncle Vanya and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, in rep at the Donmar Warehouse and subsequently on tour to the U.S. where they were seen at BAM in New York, both directed by Sam Mendes. Beale will reunite with Mendes in 2009 for the Bridge Project productions of The Winter's Tale and The Cherry Orchard, being staged at the Old Vic and BAM. He has also played Cassius in Julius Caesar opposite Ralph Fiennes at the Barbican and the title role of Macbeth for the Almeida. On Broadway, he took over from Tim Curry as King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot in December 2005, subsequently reprising that performance at the West End's Palace Theatre.
Atwell was previously seen at the National in The Man of Mode, also directed by Nicholas Hytner, and starred in Women Beware Women for the RSC. Her recent TV credits include "Mansfield Park," "The Shadow in the North," "Ruby in the Smoke," "Fear of Fanny" and "The Line of Beauty," and her film work includes "Brideshead Revisited," "Cassandra's Dream," "How About You" and "The Duchess." Higgins previously appeared at the National in Vincent in Brixton (subsequently transferring to the West End and Broadway), for which she won the trifecta of major awards – the Olivier, Critics' Circle and Evening Standard Awards for Best Actress. Other productions she has appeared in at the National include The Futurists, The Secret Rapture, King Lear, Richard III, Napoli Milionaria, Absence of War, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Children's Hour and The Walls. For the RSC, she has appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra. In the West End, she has starred in The Night of the Iguana, Death of a Salesman, Beethoven's Tenth, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Ride Down Mount Morgan and A Letter of Resignation.
Ready's previous appearances at the National include Saint Joan, Attempts on her Life and Waves. In the West End, he has appeared in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and at the Royal Court he starred in Forty Winks and Terrorism.
Major Barbara is currently booking tickets to May 15, where it runs in rep in the Olivier Theatre. For more information call 020 7452 3000 or visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.