Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward, adapted
by Sean O’Connor. Dir: O’Connor.
Perf: Carole Boyd, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Louiza
Patikas. BBC Radio 4, 26 December 2014.
Available on BBCiPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04vklq9
till 25 January 2015.
being a regular listener to The Archers,
I cannot comment on this production’s basic conceit; that it represents the
premiere of an amateur performance directed by Lynda Snell (Carole Boyd)
involving other Ambridge residents.
if listeners are not au fait with the
plot-development surrounding this performance, they can still enjoy this highly
entertaining production that proves once more how durable Noël Coward’s classic
actually is. First performed in 1941, it
ran for 1997 performances and made a star of Margaret Rutherford as Madame
Arcati. Audiences of the time enjoyed
its subject-matter; at a time when no one knew whether they might live or die
in the near future – owing to regular raids by the Germans on London – the
subject-matter seemed particularly close to their hearts. The play has been
regularly revived since
then, most recently in 2014, when Angela Lansbury returned to the West End for
the first time in nearly forty years. At
the time of writing, she is touring North America in the same production.
to Sean O’Connor’s production, I was struck by the sheer brittleness of
Coward’s language. Sometimes it seems
almost that Charles Condomine (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and his two wives Elvira
(Joanna van Kampen) and Ruth (Louiza Patikas) have an inbuilt need to keep the
banter flowing; if they were stop, they might comprehend the emptiness of their
lives. Charles may be “alive” and his
two wives “dead” – in the conventional sense – but their existences are much
the same. They inhabit an upper-middle
class world defined by gatherings – tea-parties, lunches, balls, and séances –
and nothing else. They have no inner
lives to speak of. Blithe Spirit
is undoubtedly very funny, especially when the three
protagonists start gossiping about their complicated lives, but there is a
sense in which the humour is nothing more than a façade that needs to be
sustained at all costs.
having played Madame Arcati on stage, Rutherford went on to repeat the role in
David Lean’s famous 1945 film version with Rex Harrison and Kay Hammond. Like
Edith Evans’s Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest,
Rutherford became identified with the role of the dotty medium, whose language
comprises a fascinating combination of occultist mumbo-jumbo and schoolgirl
slang. Perhaps wisely, Carole Boyd
adopted vocal tones strongly reminiscent of Rutherford in O’Connor’s revival;
she was particularly good during the sequence where she understood that she had
been invited to perform the séance purely for Charles’s research. In ringing
tones she announced that she was
leaving the house forthwith; one could imagine her storming out of the room in
her long, flowing gown fluttering behind her.
the film version, David Lean shows how the two wives wreak revenge on Charles
by having his car crash, so that the three of them are all dead. By contrast
O’Connor’s revival ended with
Charles leaving the house, while telling Elvira and Ruth in no uncertain terms
that they had no real power over him anymore.
This ending seemed rather misogynist in the sense that it showed Charles
emerging “victorious,” even though he himself had been responsible for
summoning his wives back from the dead in the first place. In Rhind-Tutt’s
performance, he came across
as a bit of a duffer, with his faux-upper class vowels and generally stiff,
unemotional method of delivery. If this
is what he was like while being married, it was hardly surprising that his
wives were dissatisfied with him. Such a
personality did not deserve to live, while his wives had to exist “on the other
side,” so to speak.
this represents only a minor objection in a revival that zipped along at a
cracking pace. The actors obviously
derived a great deal of enjoyment from their roles, and this was communicated
to the listeners. I hope that Radio 4
manages to repeat the drama very soon, either on their own station or on Radio