BLITHE SPIRIT

Review by Clifford Graham originally published by The Monday Missile Dot Coza

While it has never been proven irrefutably, Noel Coward may well have taken his inspiration for his play Blithe Spirit from his friend Radclyffe Hall. She had by way of séance, attempted to contact her dead lover in order to gain approval for her new union. By all accounts Coward had found this quest quite amusing and reflected it the life of his character Charles Condomine. Coward had also been a reader of Arthur Conan Doyle’s exploits with spiritualism, and so by the time he came to put pen to paper with Blithe Spirit, he would have been well versed in the art of the medium. Perhaps it’s this that makes Madame Acarti, the zealous spiritualist medium in the play, such a clever yet comic foil for the rest of the cast. Cowards famous comic wit knows no bounds in Blithe Spirit. His sometimes acerbic commentary also finds it’s place in this classic play.

This play has become stock repertoire for a number of dramatic societies. It gives scope for performers to explore the roots of the modern theatre as well as more traditional set designs. The current production by the Muizenberg Dramatic Society at The Masque Theatre, is in many ways a worthy attempt at this difficult piece. The set design by Alastair Duff & Jane Philbrick does Coward’s play justice. True to the period, without being over- dressed, it is stylish and pleasing to the eye. Performances are on the whole, adequate, but more time could have been taken to explore the often complex text. A lot of Noel Cowards clever and subtle humour was lost on the audience by lines being spoken at a rapid rate. Pace is important when delivering a line, but pace does not always mean speed. A few “fluffed” lines and slow cues also apparent. Karen Wilson-Harris in this respect, seems to have found just the right measure. As the blithe spirit, and first wife of Charles Condomine, she dominates the stage. Her performance near perfect in every respect. However, I do prefer my spirits a little more other-worldly. In a cameo role, Edith the maid, played by Michele Knights delighted the audience with her comic antics. It’s a long play and players seemed to lose some of the essential energy demanded by the action towards the end of the third act.

It’s hard to believe that this play was written in 1941, when England was a war ravaged society. Director Barbara Basel has done a lot to capture the “stiff upper lipped” demeanour of the English upper class of the time. The choice of furnishings and music go a long way to give us a sense of the halcyon existence they stoically tried to uphold in dire circumstances. Cowards lack of reference to the war in the play was deliberate. This play was written to entertain the theatre going public. A chance to spend an hour or so in a theatre shut off from the horror of London besieged by the blitz. Including songs by Vera Lynne, and the beautiful Irving Berlin standard “Always” set the scene perfectly.

Productions of plays by playwrights like Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde are rare and are to be savoured.    

 

BLITHE SPIRIT

deur Noël Coward

Anthony Storr Lister, Liz Roodt, Karen Wilson-Harris, Belinda Batt, Jeff Batt, Wendy Morling en Michelle Knights

Regie: Barbara Basel

’n Aanbieding van MADS in die Masque, Hoofweg, Muizenberg. Tot 20 Oktober.

Deur Danie Botha

 

Noël Coward was baie geïnspireerd toe hy hierdie komedie geskryf het. Jare later het hy gewens hy kon weer so spontaan skryf. Van 4 tot 9 Mei 1941 kletter sy tikmasjien. Sy biograaf Philip Hoare skryf dat repetisies begin het amper nog voor hy die laaste bladsy uitgedraai en deurgelees het. Dit bring vermaak onder oorlogstoestande; Winston Churchill kon nie dit genoeg loof nie. Aanvanklik frons gehore en kritici egter, maar dan sak sukses toe. Sedertdien is dit al so baie opgevoer. Ook hier by ons. Tot in Afrikaans as Die Vryerige Spook  – vir die eerste keer in die toneelpionierstyd van Hendrik Hanekom-hulle. Ek onthou spesifiek ’n suksesvolle Stellenbosse studente-opvoering onder spelleiding van Blaise Koch.

Dit is mos die komedie oor die skrywer Charles Condomine (Anthony Storr Lister) wat navorsing doen oor spiritualistiese kragte en daarom graag vir Madame Arcati (Belinda Batt) laat optree voor sy tweede vrou Ruth (Liz Roodt) en dokter (Jeff Batt) en mevrou (Wendy Morling) Bradman. Edith (Michelle Knights) moet nog leer om ’n besadigder huishulp te wees, maar kort voor lank kry sy nogal ’n belangrike rol in die séance… Voor dit gebeur,  warrel die gordyne dramaties! Iets ingrypends gebeur. Dit blyk dat almal verniet so skepties is. Madame Arcati is nie ’n bedrieër nie, maar sy skep wel ‘n probleem. Sy laat ‘n gees verskyn: Elvira (Karen Wilson-Harris). Charles se eerste vrou. Net hykanhaar sien en hoor.

Hoe suksesvol is hiérdie opvoering?

Agter die skerms verloop alles skynbaar goed met o.a. ervare steunpilare soos Jane Philbrick en Alastair Duff in die rondte en ‘n hele skaretjie helpers. Die sitkamer van die huis lyk mooi deftig en kleurryk.  (Snaaks hoe ‘n mens as resensent jou oor ietskanbekommer. Ek het rondgekyk. Daar’s mos nie genoeg stoele vir almal om aan te sit by die tafeltjie wat gaan hop nie?! Maar ek was verniet neuroties.) Die byklanke kom uit die regte rigtings en is duidelik. Hoe het die speel van “Always” my nie teruggevoer na die jare vyftig toe my ouma nog die oorlogtydse plate gespeel het nie! Die kostuums is myns insiens nommerpas. Wanneer goeters sommer net moet afduiwel, dan dóén hulle dit.

Nou oor die spel. ‘n Mens assosieer ‘n bepaalde stylvolheid met ‘n Coward. Sy kwinkslae moet spontaan klink. En ‘n flinke tempo behoort deurgaans gehandhaaf te word. Veelseggende pouseskandeel wees van komiese tydsberekening. Teen die middel van hierdie opvoering het daar egter ‘n soort swaarwigtige traagheid ingetree.

Ek het baie gehou van die doktersegpaar. Wendy Morling is wonderlik  oortuigend as die sorgsame, waaksame eggenoot vir haar man. So korrek.  Sy hou haar ook nie op met bog nie en sê ‘n ding nogal reguit. Ongelukkig dra Morling se stem nie baie sterk nie. Tydens die kort reënbui kon ‘n mens haar met moeite volg. Jeff Batt se rustigheid en manlike stemklank vir die dokter vorm ‘n goeie kontras met die ander. As Edith lewer Michelle Knight ‘n netjiese karakterisering, hoewel haar stem ook neig na die ylerige kant.

Ek sal lank een oomblik in Liz Roodt se vertolking van Ruth onthou. Sy trek bloot haar skouer op in ‘n gesprek met Charles en dit sê soveel. Haar bolyf staan soms net ‘n bietjie te veel soos ‘n vraagteken; ek praat nou nie van die amusante tonele wanneer sy dink sy buk nou af na Elvira  nie. Nietemin lewer sy goeie stemwerk en het sy ‘n goeie verhoogteenwoordigheid.

Karen Wilson-Harris se Elvira is vir my gevoel te ernstig. Gewoonlik word sy meer tergerig, opgewek (“blithe”) voorgestel. Hier val die klem meer op haar ongelukkigheid, op haar kwaai ongeduld met Madame Arcati wat tog so sukkel om haar weer na die hiernamaals toe te laat gaan. Sy en Liz Roodt lewer teen die einde aangename spanwerk.

Ek wil glo dat die ervare Belinda Batt die Madame Arcati-tradisie voortsit. Dis ‘n rol wat deur Margaret Rutherford geskep is. Omdat Rutherford in die geesteswêreld belanggestel het, wou sy eers nie deel hê aan hierdie gespot met  ‘n medium nie. Sy het die rol alleenlik  aanvaar as sy dit met erns kon vertolk. Volgens Coward het dié  dame haarself geskryf. Dié “dotty eccentric … had refused to leave the stage”. Voorkomsgewys herinner Batt ‘n mens aan die dame waarop Coward die rol  gebaseer het: “a large lady, with raven locks” en kleredrag wat neig na “the barbaric”. Stem- en voorkomsgewys gryp Batt al die moontlikhede van die rol aan en lig sy telkens die energievlak.

En nou swaai ek ’n voorvinger betigtigend vir Anthony Storr Lister (en by implikasie ook vir regisseur Barbara Basel). Anthony, man, ons Afrikanertjies is kleindag geleer jy sê nie ‘n man is mooi nie. Nee, oom Anthony is aan…trek…lik. Mooi deftig aangetrek soos ‘n pikkewyn. As jy na oom Anthony kyk, dan glo jy hy’s ’n slim kêrel wat boekekanskryf. Maar waarom moet oom Anthony so aanhoudend met ‘n hoë skreestemmetjie praat? Dit maak jou ore seer, jong. En dan steek die tannies boonop by oom Anthony aan. Dit klink ook of oom Anthony nie heeltemal sy woorde onthou nie. Dit ís ‘n klooomp woorde, ja. Maar almiskie. En die Saterdagmiddag val oom toe kort-kort verkeerd in, sê oom se woorde te gou sodat oom dit moet herhaal. Dis ’n kuns van toneelspeel: om werklik te luister na jou medespeler en dan opreg te antwoord. Ek gee uit my ervaring toe: dis nie te maklik nie, hoor. Maar weer: almiskie.

‘n Coward vra nie vir woordonsekerheid nie. Want dan neem die komiek aansienlik af.

 

First published in the Cape Times 16.10.2012

BLITHE SPIRIT.

Three-act comic play by Noel Coward. Direction Barbara Basel. Lighting Gary Fargher. Set Alastair Duff and Jane Philbrick. Costumes Barbara Basel, Wendy Morling and Cecil Jakins. Presented by Muizenberg Amateur Dramatic Society. Masque Theatre. Thursday to Saturday October 20. SHEILA CHISHOLM reviews.

NOEL Coward’s Blithe Spirit is readily accepted as one of his best plays and regularly performed anywhere where audiences can understand and appreciate his sharp wit and flamboyant style. Few who saw David Lean’s 1945 film starring Rex Harrison as suave Charles Condomine and Margaret Rutherford as eccentric medium Madame Arcati don’t still chuckle remembering their performances and recall Coward’s spirited wordplay.

Which makes them a hard act to follow. Particularly as by today’s snappy two-act plays, Blithe Spirit’s three-acts, 7 scenes, makes a long sit.

Capturing the essence of the era, director Barbara Basel schooled her cast well. They kept in character and although not always word perfect, when memories momentarily slipped, they were well covered up leaving no awkward hiatuses. However, these did result in pace slowing, sometimes leaving Coward’s verbal shafts lost.

Blithe Spirit revolves around humorous excesses by spiritualist Madame Arcati (Belinda Batt). Although occasionally looking contrived and pitching her voice too high, Batt’s ebullient personality eminently suited this larger than life persona. She amused as, dressed in outlandish garb, outrageous hats and strings of beads, she pranced and waved her arms calling for Daphne – her “child go-between on the other side.”

Much to Charles Condomine’s (Anthony Storr Lister) consternation Madame Arcati’s seance conjures up Elvira (Karen Wilson-Harris). She’s his long dead first wife who his present wife Ruth (Liz Roodt) can’t see.

Costumed in a glittery, floating grey shroud, Wilson-Harris’s beautifully clear diction delighted as, looking every inch a ghost, she wafted airily about, causing mischief between Charles and Ruth. As a relatively new thespian Roodt required more direction to correct her stance and encourage her not to continually fold her arms across her chest. Eliminate these habits and her agreeable stage presence and well modulated voice will make her an asset to amateur dramatics.

Physically ideal for the debonair Charles, Storr Lister will turn in a very credible portrayal once he’s secure in his lines. And showing pleasing promise was Michelle Knights’s debut as Edith – the Condomine’s overly-enthusiastic new maid.

Adding colour in small, but important roles were Wendy Morling and Jeff Batt as Dr and Mrs Bradman – the Condomine’s friends.

Spontaneous applause awarded Alastair Duff and Jane Philbrick’s excellent set design, and a good recording of Blithe Spirit’s key tune I’ll Be Loving You Always by Irving Berlin made pleasant listening. Occasional cue and memory lapses didn’t spoil an entertaining production. Tickets R55-R65. To book call 021 788 1898