Sunday, April 06, 2014

An evening in the theatre that will live in the memory

Like so much of Noel Coward’s output there is more to “Blithe Spirit” than meets the eye. He called it an “improbable farce”, and so it is. Highly improbable – unless you are a believer in the spirit world and the power of the séance. But below the surface of this deliberate unbelievability there is a clever and at times subtle piece of social commentary at work. I'm not suggesting that it is a “play with a message” – that was never Noel’s way. The stage was a place to entertain not to teach or to lecture. But the presence of a few home truths, some of them rather uncomfortable? That's another matter!

In “Private Lives” there is a serious (sort of)  moment when Amanda and Elyot muse briefly on death. Elyot says:

“Death’s very laughable, such a cunning little mystery. All done with mirrors”

As Sheridan Morley put it:

 “The final victory over death was, for Noel, to laugh at it…”

So “Blithe Spirit” is a play with not one but in the end two ghosts in it and yes it laughs at death by making it not really such a big deal! It was hugely popular when it opened in July 1941 at a time when death was all around – and not just on the battlefield.  The “Blitz” had, as it turned out, just finished, but the residents of London were not to know that and few had been untouched by it.  The “Blitz Spirit” was in part to laugh at privation – and the laughing at death of “Blithe Spirit” was only one step removed. “The Times” review of the first production at the “Piccadilly Theatre”  praised it fulsomely and said this:

“…the denouement carries the possibly ungallant and certainly facile implication that wives present only one serious problem to the well regulated masculine mind: how are they to be got rid of ? But why in these days of low diet should we bother about implications, gallant or otherwise, when we are presented with a piece of fooling as delicious…”

In his final speech Charles says:

“You said in one of your more acid moments, Ruth, that I had been hag-ridden all my life! How right you were – but now I’m free, Ruth dear, not only of mother and Elvira… but free of you too and I should like to take this farewell opportunity of saying I'm enjoying it immensely…”


This has the ring of misogyny about it and it is certainly true that the strongest and most dominant characters in “Blithe Spirit” are the women - as they are, if you think about it, in most of Noels’ plays. You also suspect that there is some tongue-in-cheek writing going on here. Charles remembers Elvira early in the play to Ruth as both “physically attractive” and “morally untidy” – a rather tantalising combination and one that Charles is unlikely to reject should it appear to him in another women – as it inevitably will! If he did feel trapped he’ll surely be trapped again!

So if “Blithe Spirit” is a comedy about male/female relationships (it is) and if it presents the conclusion that women nearly always have the upper hand it is in the tradition of Coward's comedies - Amanda in “Private Lives” Julia and Jane in “Fallen Angels”, Judith Bliss in “Hay Fever” and so on. These subtleties were well explored in the brilliant new production at the Gielgud Theatre in which the direction of a fine cast made the play a great deal more than the pot boiler it is sometimes seen to be – and is!

“Blithe Spirit” is so popular that it requires little promotion – most people know of it and in an average theatre-going lifetime we will probably see it at least half-a-dozen times. “Blithe Spirit's" inherent quality as a play is only partly an explanation of this phenomenon. Many if not all productions of the play centre around the Madame Arcati character. This is a part generally taken by a “National Treasure” of a certain age. A Grand Dame of the theatre strutting her stuff – often to continuous applause. Margaret Rutherford set the standard – though she was a comparatively youthful 49 in the first production and just a few years later in the 1945 film. In the last forty years Beryl Reid, Geraldine Page, Penelope Keith, Stephanie Cole and Alison Steadman (among others) have played the part. Steadman, the most recent, was miscast largely because she overacted and dominated the stage. That is not, I think, at all what Coward intended. It is of course a central role but the medium is really a catalyst in the action rather than driving it. Arcati is eccentric and perhaps slightly mad, but in Coward’s deft hands she is perfectly believable.

In the new production at the Gielgud Madame Arcati is played by Angela Lansbury – certainly an authentic “National Treasure” – and, recently, a proper Dame of the British Empire to boot. I have to say I feared the worst – not least because Dame Angela is 88! Were we in for one of those gruesome evenings when an old Thesp well beyond his/her sell-by date gives a forgetful and forgettable performance and receives a standing ovation for it. Applause not for what he/she did but for what they were?

Well there was a standing ovation alright – but it was as much for the sheer genius of Ms Lansbury's acting as it was for her memorable long career. She was outstanding in the role which she played I’m certain just as Noel would have wanted it played. Her take on the role was understated. She never sought to dominate proceedings but to be the slightly scatty, sincere “professional” of the world of spiritualism. It doesn't matter if as an audience members you think it is stuff and nonsense – nor if her fellow characters believe the same. She is a Spiritualist and that is her life. That the appearance of the ghosts proves her point she neither celebrates nor uses to silence the doubters. She is however very pleased by Elvira’s appearance – “At last – at last – a genuine materialisation” she cries out with delight.

It is impossible to imagine a better performance of Madame Arcati than that given by Angela Lansbury. Her vitality and effort bely her years, indeed I think you would guess that she was at least twenty years younger. My impression was that the sheer quality of the performance must have inspired the rest of the cast who were all very good indeed. A totally memorable evening in the theatre that will live in the memory for a very long time. And confirmation that “Blithe Spirit” is so much more than just a vehicle for a Star. It is a very great play by the master.


Post a Comment

<< Home