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April 05, 2005

Blithe Spirit - Noel Coward

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit
Savoy Theatre, London
22nd November 2004 - 28th May 2005

Reviving Blithe Spirit faces the same directorial problems as that of The Importance of Being Ernest. Dame Sybil Thorndyke so captured the imagination with her ejaculation of "a handbag!" in the first Act of the Wilde play that the part became a minefield for every subsequent actress who played it. Maggie Smith found a famous way round the minefield recently, but the audience is always watching like a hawk to see how it will be done.

Similarly, few who have seen the film of Blithe Spirit can forget the floppy jowls and mad cheerfulness of Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati, cycling through the village to the fateful séance at the Condamine house that releases the deceased Elvira from the spirit world to play hell with the domestic tranquillity of the Condamines.

The current Madame Arcati is Penelope Keith who immediately dissolves the whole problem by giving an account of the medium as a totally dedicated professional in a supremely dotty profession. She is of course the star player of the production, and every moment of her performance is perfection. She gives us, as it were, less ham than Rutherford, but more beef.

Medicine and bureaucracy are both parodied in Coward's version of the spirit world, which is equipped with its own bits of jargon, such as "ectoplasm". There is not the slightest hint that Keith's Madame Arcati is sending herself up, so that the play achieves what it must: a direct encounter between two utterly incompatible views of reality, the mad professionalism of the spirit medium, and the hapless commonsense scepticism of the British bourgoisie.

Noel Coward's script is the epitome of the well-constructed play, since it is basically an exercise in one man torn between two women, with the twist that one of them is a ghost. It is hardly surprising that writing it fell into place in the course of about five days. It is a joy to watch the master in total control of the material. Just at the point when the laughs to be milked from the hero shouting at the otherwise invisible and inaudible Elvira, and thus offending the entirely visible Ruth, are running out, the scene dissolves into slapstick – "ectoplasmic slapstick" I suppose one might call it - all squirting soda siphons and banging doors.

Elvira the first wife is the spirit of mischief (partially) incarnate. She gets the best lines while Ruth the second wife faces the ungrateful task of being hurt and indignant because she thinks her husband has become mad and cruel. Elvira must be played with the irresistible swagger that makes her the perfect date and the nightmare wife. Charles, the husband, is the kind of sophisticated and heartless cad Rex Harrison played to perfection, as, of course, he did in the film. The production exploits all possibilities, particularly the hopeless maid who turns out to be more important than appears at first sight. The whole cast rises brilliantly to the lines. The "ectoplasmic mayhem" at the end is the kind of self-referential raspberry that mark's Noel Coward's refusal to take himself seriously.

No contact with reality, you might think, and it's true. But modern audiences, somewhat bemused by the whole décor of a séance, might need to be reminded that spiritualism was "big" between the wars. Conan Doyle was a notable believer, and the slow decline of Christianity during that period was marked, and perhaps masked, by an enthusiasm for this kind of semi-technological do-it-yourself spirituality unencumbered by dogma. It was inspired (so it is plausibly suggested) by the losses in the trenches, and the yearning so many people had to connect with those who had been killed. There is a sense, then, in which Coward, usually regarded as an entirely conventional figure, is being "transgressive" in treating a serious subject.

It is reported that Coward himself was sensitive to the charge that he was being flippant about the serious subject of death. The charge came to haunt him when he himself took over the role of Charles for a fortnight in August 1942, on (as he reported):

a bleak and miserable day, and when I arrived at the theatre for the evening performance. I was grateful to Fay Compton for warning me, just before I went on, to be on my guard against certain lines in the play which might surprise me, by their dreadful appositeness, into betraying my feelings.
His friend the Duke of Kent had been killed that day in an air crash.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.


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