Marriage is, or at least was once supposed to be, until death do us part. Noel Coward’s fierce farce Blithe Spirit, currently revived in a most misanthropic production at Stratford under the direction of Brian Bedford, asks what would happen if death didn’t have to be the end of marriage at all – a hellish rather than heavenly prospect for his churlish characters.
Charles and Ruth Condomine, played by Ben Carlson and Sara Topham, are enjoying a run-of-the-mill second marriage – which in a Coward play means upper-class, unsatisfying and soaked in spirits (alcoholic, not ectoplasmic).
That all changes when they invite a medium over for a seance as research for a novel Charles is working on. The situation becomes stranger than Charles’s feeble detective fiction when the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Michelle Giroux) is accidentally summoned – and then overstays her welcome. The presence of a poltergeist doesn’t upset the jealous Ruth quite as much as the fact that this particular phantasm’s arrival has turned their mutual husband into “a sort of astral bigamist.”
When Blithe Spirit premiered in London’s West End in July of 1941, Coward at first came under critical attack for making light of death as the Second World War raged on; audiences welcomed the comic relief, however, and it was a huge hit. (John Gielgud’s criticism of the double-intervalled play – “it was a good joke, but he spun it out too much” – stands, however, I think.)
From a Canadian perspective, it is interesting to consider, in retrospect, that at the time critics were tsk-tsking Coward for mocking communing with spirits, Britain’s biggest ally in the war was a country run by a fellow who was a visitor to the London Spiritualist Alliance and regularly conducted seances with his dead dogs. (“William Lyon Mackenzie King: A part of our heritage.”)
In Bedford’s production, it is the medium who gets all the big laughs – and without always being the butt of the joke. Seana McKenna is marvellous as Madame Arcati, who here bears a striking resemblance to Margaret Atwood (and shares the author’s love of birding as well). She portrays her, in a clever twist on the character, as both down-to-earth and out-to-lunch, a delicious contradiction that helps illuminate the real targets of the play. The way Arcati’s “schoolgirl phraseology” and roll-up-your-sleeves Blitz spirit irritates Ruth to no end helps reveal the Condomines as rich twits who couldn’t keep calm and carry on if their lives depended on it.
Of the wives, Giroux has more life as a mischievous and even sexy spook. Topham, pale as a ghost even though she is the living one, is monstrous from the get-go. She dials up the outrage much too quickly, leaving her nowhere to go but shriller and shriller until she becomes as irritating as a shrieking kettle left on the boil too long.
Carlson, who was previously cast as the title character in Moliere’s The Misanthrope by Bedford, is skilled with biting sarcasm, but he injects some human warmth into the no-less-despicable Charles. He even briefly seems deeply in love, albeit that comes when he is remembering his first wife rather than reconnecting with her. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but the opposite is also true in Noel Coward’s plays, here as in Private Lives – presence, spectral or physical, makes the heart grow colder and meaner.
When Arcati first talks about going into her otherworldly trances, she is offended when asked if if she feels “funny.” “The word is an unfortunate choice,” she says.
Indeed, it’s not the right word to describe Bedford’s old-fashioned production either – aside from McKenna’s Arcati and Susie Burnett’s physical comedy as the maid Edith. It’s hard to believe in a time of misanthropic comedy from Louis CK to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that Coward could still come off as cruellest of all.