Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 21 – May 14, 2022
Playwright: Noël Coward
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Courtney Act, Matt Day, Nancy Denis, Bessie Holland, Tracy Mann, Megan Wilding, Brigid Zengeni
Images by Prudence Upton
Ruth and Charles are a wealthy couple who have run out of earthly pleasures to occupy themselves with, and are now toying with paranormal phenomena, for shits and giggles. What was originally meant to be the Condomines’ moment of disingenuous flirtation with the netherworld however, turns into a living nightmare when Charles’ ex-wife Elvira returns from the dead to haunt the household. Noël Coward’s 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit is a bit of harmless nostalgic English fun, the usual appeal of which resides almost entirely with its writer’s extraordinary wit.
With the passage of time, it is unsurprising that Coward’s work, now almost 80 years old, might have waned in its ability to tickle. Fortunately, the transcendental magic of theatre is ageless, and under the directorship of Paige Rattray, we find a renewed appreciation of the old play, and even though her contemporary production may not share very much in common, in terms of methodology, with the original creation, there is no denying that rapturous laughter was always the central intention.
It is a tremendously successful rendition, that relies upon Rattray’s uncanny ability to parody not only what Coward found worthy of satire, but also to lampoon old English sensibilities, such as those of Coward’s own, that represent so much of what many Australians today wish to establish distance from. Blithe Spirit has always made fun of the bourgeoisie, but now it is additionally useful in aiding in the ridicule of our colonial history.
Indeed it is that familiar English pomp that forms the basis of Rattray’s sarcastic and camp humour. Production design by David Fleischer involves conspicuous display of white money and class, for a sardonic rendering of the Condomines’ home and attire that look every bit the epitome of rich people nonsense. Sound design by Clemence Williams memorably adds to the cheekiness of attitude, as does Damien Cooper’s lighting design, which is additionally called upon to enhance the show’s cartoonish moments of supernaturality.
Performer Courtney Act brings excellent presence to the phantasmal role of Elvira, although a lack of nuance and depth in interpretation, tends to result in a regretful vapidity for the prominent part. Charles is played by Matt Day, admirably sure-footed and detailed with his contributions. The housemaid Edith is made larger than life by Megan Wilding’s creativity, the nature of which is undeniably inventive and mischievous. The wonderfully robust Brigid Zengeni portrays the clairvoyant Madame Arcati, as simultaneously kooky yet dignified. Nancy Denis and Tracy Mann are whimsical as family friends the Bradmans, both bringing considerable charm to the staging.
All theatre productions are collaborative efforts, but rare instances do occur, where a single star on the stage shines so bright, everything else can only settle for being mere witness to that magnificence. Playing Ruth, is actor Bessie Holland, who delivers nothing short of a masterclass, in a performance that exceeds even the greatest of expectations. It is a fearless embodiment of a great love for live comedy, replete with faultless instincts and exhaustively considered manoeuvres. Not only does Holland offer us crystal clarity with regards character and story, she has an ability to connect with her audience as though through a direct link to our viscera, so that an impossible joy is emitted, with every aural and visual punchline she precisely, and spiritedly, executes. It is a marvel that such talent is real, and an even greater miracle that we can attest to its existence in this very lifetime, with our own eyes.