Before there was Judith Butler, the academic who popularized the idea of gender as a performance, there was Noel Coward’s Judith Bliss, an actress who lives every aspect of her identity as a performance – not just “female,” but “heterosexual” and “mother” and “wife.” Everything she does is done in air quotes – even as an actress, she’s acting.
Judith Bliss is the main character in Coward’s 1924 comedy Hay Fever, currently being revived at the Stratford Festival with the very aptly named Lucy Peacock in the oh-so-starring role.
Bliss may be retired, professionally, from the stage, but in her country home she continues to hold centre stage – and her larger-than-life manner has rubbed off on her entire family. Husband David Bliss (Kevin Bundy) performs the role of cantankerous novelist when he steps away from his typewriter, while their two aimless children Sorel (Ruby Joy) and Simon (Tyrone Savage) play at being young, pretty and precocious.
Hay Fever takes place over the course of a weekend when the four Bliss family members have each invited a prospective love interest up to their country house in Cookham: Boxer Sandy (Gareth Potter), flapper Jackie (Ijeoma Emesowum), socialite Myra (a scintillating Cynthia Dale) and diplomat Richard (Sanjay Talwar).
Each of these visitors first falls madly for one of the Blisses, and then is put off by his or her inability to stop performing.
What is unsettling about the Bliss clan is that it is difficult to tell when they are acting, and when they are not. Even when the hosts and the guests sit down to play a riff on charades in the parlour, the guests can only play the game on one level – while the Bliss family are playing multiple games at once. When Sandy asks Sorel if her mother really means what she says after one of her outbursts, she responds: “No, not really; we, none of us, ever mean anything.”
Coward has, somehow, gained a reputation as a writer of works as light and bubbly as a glass of champagne – a reputation that always perplexes me as his dramatic works seem darker and more full of irredeemable characters than Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. There is no more unsentimental writer of comedy out there, and I find Hay Fever particularly unsettling.
This is especially the case in Alisa Palmer’s production, which is amped up to the max and simultaneously drained of all blood. She directs Hay Fever as if it were written by Joe Orton, emphasizing the robotic nature of the Bliss clan and the unthinking, almost bovine nature of their guests.
There’s rarely anything even remotely resembling a real emotion anywhere over these three, short, sharp acts – but, then, perhaps there is no such thing as a real emotion. Indeed, watching Judith Bliss in the age of Judith Butler, you might imagine that the only thing that distinguishes the Bliss family from their guests is that the bourgeois bohemians are aware that they are performing in life as much as on stage, while the guests are blind to this fact. As David puts it, when Myra is pretending to resist his advances and he calls her out on it: “ I love to see things as they are first, and then pretend that they’re not.”
The problem with Palmer’s hard-hearted approach to the material is that, while the play maintains an over-the-top energy throughout, it is more freaky than actually funny. It’s hard to laugh at outrageousness when there is no base line of normalcy, or to care about the proceedings when the stakes remain so very, very low.
From the opening scene – with Savage’s robotic Simon furiously flipping his hair after every outputted line – it is hard to watch this Hay Fever as anything other than an animatronic display that has gone haywire.
As Bliss, Peacock starts big with a gaspy, mannered delivery that seems a parody of her own most theatrical performances at Stratford – and it is enthralling in its own way, though it leaves little place to go. To my taste, the more subtle performances are the most successful – Joy is a joy as Sorel, who shows a momentary desire to escape from her family’s fecklessness, while Kevin Bundy is perfectly ironic as David and gets all the best pratfalls. And Talwar does sound the one truthful note as “diplomatist” Richard, always saying the right thing but otherwise totally awkward in the Bliss-ful mayhem; he’s superb.
Ultimately, however, there’s a hollowness to this Hay Fever that is not at all attractive despite the ornately disorderly set by Douglas Paraschuk and Dana Osborne’s gorgeous costumes. I’m divided, however, as to whether this is a fault of Palmer’s production, or if Palmer’s production is simply showing us the hollowness of Coward’s world and, more frighteningly, our own.