Monday, August 29, 2011

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Noel Coward was undoubtedly one the major figures in British theatre in the early twentieth century and, yet, the experience of watching a Noel Coward play is often strangely unsatisfying. Once the many witty lines have been digested, admired and taken out of the equation, his plays can reveal themselves to be staggeringly shallow enterprises. The best and most-frequently revived of his plays are characterised by particularly clever creative conceits. Blithe Spirit has the earnest and good-natured medium Madame Arcati, who is deeply affronted by the slightest suggestion that she is a charlatan. Private Lives has the lovers Elliot and Amanda, who cannot bear to be separated from each other almost as much as they cannot bear to be together. And Hay Fever, now playing at Dublin's Gate Theatre, has the eccentric Bliss family, who live life as if it is one of the ridiculous melodramas in which mother Judith, a recently-retired actress, has spent much of her life appearing.

Unwaveringly bohemian, Judith and husband David, son Simon and daughter Sorrel have not the slightest regard for emotional moderation and determinedly rejoice in the more dramatic and colourful aspects of life while simply ignoring its mundanities. Much hilarity ensues in this very funny play when it transpires that each family member has invited somebody down to the country for the weekend. The abrupt reception that all four receive from the hassled housekeeper Clara is merely the tip of the iceberg for bumbling diplomat Richard Greathem, vague flapper Jackie Coryton, devious socialite Myra Arundel and Sandy Tyrell, a young man besotted by Judith. Over the course of the weekend, the bemused quartet must contend with various bouts of unbridled passion and hysteria from their increasingly-unhinged hosts.

The Blisses are not short of the self-absorption, self-indulgence and self-regard that one typically encounters in Noel Coward's characters and their histrionics could potentially be more irritating than endearing. Happily, Ingrid Craigie, Stephen Brennan, Marty Rea and Beth Cooke strike all the right notes as Judith, David, Simon and Sorrel in Patrick Mason's elegant and sophisticated production. Craigie (pictured above with Stephen Swift as the admiring Sandy) is outstanding as the matriarch and her inability to live her life as anything other than one of the beautifully-tragic heroines she played for so many years on stage is quite touching, as is her affectionate family's willingness to facilitate her. Also particularly impressive is Marty Rea whose Simon dresses as a matador for dinner, spends much of his time enthusiastically drawing naked ladies and is much more his mother's natural successor than the marginally-more measured and self-aware Sorrel.

Meanwhile, Coward gives the four guests very little to do other than stand around looking aghast at their hosts' uncouth behaviour. The male guests are virtually indistinguishable from each other and an extended sequence in which Jackie and Sandy valiantly attempt to cure a case of hiccoughs strikes one as the work of a playwright who worried that his his third act was a bit too short. Although Myra's attempts to make mischief by seducing David and her ensuing frustration when both he and his wife are happy to play along are very entertaining, a miscast Jade Yourell is far too short, sweet and young to convince as a world-weary "vampire." Stephen Swift and Kathy-Rose O Brien do well enough with the under-written roles of Sandy and Jackie but Mark O Halloran's exaggerated movements about the stage as Richard are jarringly excessive. Barbara Brennan must be praised for squeezing every drop of vitality she possibly can from the meagre material she is given as Clara, Judith's one-time dresser who now looks after the family to the best of her abilities.

At one point during Hay Fever, Myra accuses the Blisses of being "artificial to the point of lunacy." Whilst over-seeing the on-stage hijinks with flair, Mason also manages to convey in this production the artificiality of the theatrical experience. Craigie's Judith sashays to the very front of the stage and looks straight at us as she delivers a speech on the wonderful feeling she gets from an audience while various cast members pull the curtain across the stage in between acts suggesting that we the audience are ourselves complicit in the artificial lunacy. After all, are not most plays as jam-packed with implausibilities and heightened emotions as an average evening with Judith and company? It's only when people are not complicit and must unwittingly engage with such things that they are compelled to book themselves on the first train back to London!

Hay Fever continues at the Gate Theatre in Dublin until the 24th of September.

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