Blithe Spirit

BLOGATHON: Coward on Screen

The world of Noel Coward is undeniably irresistible: a gregarious whirl of sparkling comedies and insightful satires that leap from the pages on which they are presented, thrilling readers and audiences almost one hundred years on from his first experiment with playwriting (a one-act comedy co-written with fellow performer and writer Esmé Wynne). Publishing over fifty plays throughout his lifetime, Coward is perhaps best remembered for stage productions such as Private Lives, Easy Virtue or Design for Living. Many of his plays have been adapted for film, a personal favourite being the 1931 adaptation of Private Lives. Coward’s work continues to be in the public eye, from stage revivals and public broadcasts to lavish film adaptations (the most recent being the 2008 adaptation of Easy Virtue starring Jessica Biel).

The impact of adapting a play into a film is often a point of argument. Indeed, a film adaptation can expose wider audiences to the works of a particular writer or composer; it can contribute to the ruination (or improvement) of ticket sales; it can provide life changing career boosts or quite the opposite.

Readers familiar with my writing will probably be aware of the deep connection I have formed with one of Coward’s most successful plays Blithe Spirit therefore it seems only natural that my train of thought should instantly orbit towards this particular spiritual comedy. Fascinatingly, it was the 1945 adaptation directed by David Lean that first introduced me to Blithe Spirit. Although Mr Coward produced the adaptation himself, he deemed the film as an unfortunate disappointment. Lean incorporated several unnecessary changes to the setting (the play is set entirely in the Condomines’ living room whereas the film consists of scenes set in Madame Arcati’s home, various other rooms in the Condomines’ home and several outdoor scenes). The somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere achieved in the static nature of the play’s setting is diminished almost entirely by the film’s scene changes. Charles’ determination to escape his vehement wives is somewhat reduced; the power of the wives seems to be a lacklustre afterthought, their victorious and ghostly battle truncated by a hastily rewritten ending that doesn’t quite make sense or have as impressive an impact as the original, haunting ending of the play. Not only is Coward’s ambiguous and thrilling ending omitted from the film version, there seems to be a curious misdirection throughout the entire screen production: Coward’s script is fast-paced and quick-witted yet this film cannot claim to be responsible for many laugh out loud moments. The script is, in my opinion, rushed from start to finish with Coward’s sophisticated language delivered at such a pace that it is difficult to fully appreciate the fantastic humour featured within his lengthy script.

Through the power of film, an individual interpretation is solidified – immortalised if you wish – but this interpretation may not prove to be the ‘right’ interpretation. To momentarily remain in the world of poltergeists and ectoplasm, Constance Cummings’ Ruth Condomine (Blithe Spirit, 1945) is cold and not particularly likeable. Other actresses have taken their portrayal of Ruth in antithetical directions: a weepy and insipid character (also partially distasteful – recently displayed in this West End production) to a fierce and powerful character (an incredibly enjoyable portrayal that featured in this production last year). The ephemeral nature of theatre allows these characters to be developed and experimented with. Effectively, Coward’s work (and many others like him) is continuously being changed, analysed and reinterpreted. The solidification of a play into a film may be beneficial for some but for the play itself, its reputation shall henceforth be diminished to merely “the play of the film” for a huge percentage of the population.

It’s entirely possible that the success of Coward’s work lies in its ephemeral quality; its whimsical and improbable nature translates better to the stage where there is a strong element of Coleridge’s Suspension of Disbelief. Even his more serious plays such as The Vortex and its themes of vanity and substance abuse, whilst still a fantastic success on stage, is long drawn out and boring on screen in the BBC’s 1969 adaptation. Coward’s work loses its unique sparkle on screen, the humour suppressed, the satire vanquished. There’s simply nothing quite like going to see a Coward play on stage.

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REVIEW: Blithe Spirit, Gielgud Theatre

Blithe Spirit, written over the course of five days, boldly addresses death and afterlife at a time when Britain was desperate for closure and reassurance in the midst of World War II. Coward explored the nature of long term relationships whilst injecting much needed humour; comforting audiences with the notion that the dead live on, play delightful games of backgammon and sign up for return visits to Earth to haunt their loved ones. Blithe Spiritpremiered in London in 1941; intrigued audiences braved bomb craters and wreckage to catch a glimpse of Coward’s ghostly light comedy. Over 70 years later, the show has returned to the West End and continues to delight audiences with its tale of love, life, death and deception.

One name dominates the Gielgud Theatre. One name is consistently mentioned in all reviews and advertisements. One name is on everyone’s lips as the lights dim and the show begins. That name is, of course, Angela Lansbury and what can be said of her performance that has not already been said? She bopped, she jerked, she pranced. She regarded Serena Evans’ Mrs Bradman with a dry disinterest and warmly embraced her character’s spiritualism with such enthusiasm that forces me to echo the many critics who have stated that Lansbury embodied Madame Arcati in every way, essentially becoming her character and gathering nightly standing ovations for her performance. But taking a step back and viewing the larger picture, it seems incredibly unfair that – to some extent – Blithe Spirit has become an attraction due to the 88 year old woman who is playing the supporting role.

Today very few people can rightfully claim that they saw the original London production ofBlithe Spirit but reference to the original script and to the 1945 film closely based on the play, it is clear that the current West End production can draw many close comparisons. From the pale doors that stretch along the back of the set to Lansbury’s shadow eerily dwarfing the rest of the cast during the seance, Michael Blakemore’s production often alludes to the play’s roots. Characterisations firmly echo those in the original script with unquiet ghosts throwing themselves from the arm of a chair in over dramatic flourishes, reminding audiences that Coward’s play was intended to be nothing more than an “improbable farce.” Charles Edwards is outstanding as Charles Condomine, comfortable in his second marriage until Jemima Rooper’s ghostly Elvira hurls herself out of the curtains and monotonously lets her negligee slip from its place in order to remind Charles of the highs of his first marriage. Janie Dee’s embattled Ruth must struggle against the ghostly apparition of Elvira, her calm poise dissolving into despairing sobs as she contemplates the severity of her situation.

With Lansbury, Edwards and Dee all capable of making the entire house roar with laughter at the mere raise of an eyebrow or turn of the head, audiences are in for a supernatural treat at the Gielgud Theatre. 

NOVEMBER FAVOURITE: High Spirits

Following my recent adventures to see Blithe Spirit in Perth, I simply couldn’t resist the urge to delve further into the world of Noel Coward’s ghostly farce by retreating from the unfamiliar ground of plays (an unfamiliarity I intend to change sooner rather than later) and returning to the world of musicals where Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray created the 1964 show High Spirits. Directed by Coward himself, High Spirits haunted both Broadway and the West End for a short period of time, gaining Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Author, Best Composer and Lyricist and Best Direction of a Musical to name but a few. Armed with both the Broadway and West End cast recordings from a friend’s record collection, I settled down for a night of singing, seances and spirits. 
 
High Spirits closely follows the plot line of Coward’s 1941 play although the role of Madame Arcati has been expanded significantly – it was Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Musical whereas Louise Troy gained a nomination for Best Featured Actress as Ruth Condomine, the role typically expected to be classed as the leading female role. 
 
High Spirits opens with writer Charles Condomine and his second wife Ruth hosting a seance during which Charles hopes he will learn the “tricks of the trade” and gather material for his new novel by inviting the crazy local medium Madame Arcati to conduct the seance. However he gets more than he bargained for when, after a relatively disappointing evening, his late first wife Elvira materialises in front of his – and only his – eyes, causing havoc for his second marriage. The musical, like the play it is based on, is packed full of comical lines and fascinating character traits that translate well into the lyrics of Martin and Gray. The light and somewhat dated tunes convincingly convey the emotions of each character, welcoming room for character development and adding a little extra spice to the already fantastic story.
 
Martin and Gray provided not only the lyrics but also the book and the music for High Spirits. After several listens of both cast recordings I have found myself naturally drawn to the duets, all of which are between Charles and one of his two wives. The music is catchy and memorable; the lyrics often witty and packed with lines that accurately portray different aspects of each character. 
 
Although I believe it would be unlikely for High Spirits to survive if it were to be revived today, I cannot help but wonder if a new, modern musical adaption of Blithe Spirit would make a lasting impression in the world of theatre. Perhaps another budding lyricist will expand this farce even further. Only time will tell… I’ll be waiting for the press night. 

REVIEW: Blithe Spirit, Perth Theatre

“One rap for yes, two raps for no”
Blithe Spirit is a rapturous success!
 
With a beautiful Art Deco set and extravagant costumes Blithe Spirit is visual splendour, transporting the audience to 1940’s Perthshire where struggling writer Charles and his second wife Ruth hold a seance led by Madame Arcati – the local medium who’s not quite as in touch with the spirit world as she thinks she is. Arcati contacts Elvira, Charles’ first wife, and brings her back to haunt the house where she once lived and of course, Elvira being her twisted self, she is only too happy to cause a little havoc.
 
Having heard that the setting of this production had been relocated to Perthshire, I had my doubts. Could this show possibly meet the standard of the 1945 film version of Blithe Spiritthat I was so fond of? The moment I entered the curtainless theatre I was greeted with the gorgeous set and several cast members busying themselves on stage – in character – as they prepared for the evening’s entertainment. Any worries were immediately cast aside: this show was already a hit in my book.
 
Anita Vettesse provided a truthful, powerful and sometimes hilarious portrayal of Ruth. Suddenly, the dull character that I found forgettable in the film became the interesting and exceedingly memorable character I was rooting for as I watched the plot develop on stage. Drew Cain was an excellent Charles, the man stuck between his two wives. Again, I found myself becoming fonder of Charles as the story advanced. Sally Reid starred as the mischievous Elvira, the role that is easily the most memorable for anyone who has seen the film. Reid’s performance on occasion echoed that of Kay Hammond, the original Elvira of both stage and screen, but she also made the role her own – it’s safe to say the audience enjoyed her portrayal of Charles’ ghostly first wife. Anne Lacey provided a barrel of laughs as the hilarious yet serious Madame Arcati. From her wacky costumes to her haunting rhymes, Lacey embodied Arcati in every way. A special mention must go out to Scarlett Mack who had the audience giggling before the show even started as the goofy, clumsy and loveable maid, Edith.
 
Johnny McKnight, the director of Blithe Spirit has, along with Kenny Miller’s designs and Kevin Treacy’s lighting, created a wonderful production of the Noël Coward classic that I will cherish for many years to come.
 
I may have travelled 120 miles to see this show but the glamour, the laughter, the talent and the wonderful experience has convinced me to return to the show for its penultimate performance on the afternoon of 16th November.
 
If you live in Scotland and are looking for a fantastic night of laughter, splendour and ghostly goings on then Perth Theatre is the place to be!