Coward’s ‘Spirit’

An Immortal Comedy Leaves the Audience Delighted

On The Town | Annelies Guisset, Paul Krauskopf | December 2007 / January 2008

Mark Straker and Willow Nash as Mr. and Mrs. Condomine in the opening scene. (Photo: R. Reidinger)

Despite the late-night November cold outside, Vienna’s English Theatre felt like an English family living room for the performance of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, where laughter and entertainment were served and gulped down like hot Earl Grey tea.

Nestled cozily into a hidden corner of the Josefsgasse, in the 8th District, the theater can be difficult to find for the uninitiated, shyly illuminated by a couple of globed lamps and modest glass doors. But once inside, a thick lush carpet carried guests through the room, as the clinking of champagne glasses accompanied the hum of conversation of people eager to take their seats.

An usher, formal as a toy soldier, gently opened the double doors, as a bubbly, expectant crowd poured into a beautiful baroque aula. Winding stairs creaked gently as people took their seats on the balcony, revealing the view onto the stage. It all blended in effortlessly, for a play that could just as well have been performed in the theater itself.

"Although it was written in 1941, Blithe Spirit looks back very much to the 1930s and this is our setting tonight," wrote director Philip Dart on the theater’s website. And in the glow of the overhead key lights and on-stage "house" lamps, designer Charles Cusick Smith’s décor and color palette created the mood: The cream-colored walls, a salmon-colored fauteuil with red cushions, and varieties of wooden furniture pieces evoked a soft, Art Deco elegance, contemporary enough for the audience to feel at home. From Madame Arcati’s (Valda Aviks) feathered turban hats to Ruth’s (Willow Nash) sleek dresses, the costumes fulfilled their role in setting the mood of England on the eve of WWII.

The plot of the play revolves around the writer Charles Condamine (Mark Straker), who after a séance, is haunted by his first wife Elvira, who does everything in her power to sabotage Charles’ current, and apparently happy, marriage to his self-possessed second wife Ruth – an uncanny look-alike for Myrna Loy. While written in 1941 two years into the war, the play suggests that death too can be made fun of, at worst an irritation to those who live. This treatment created a public outcry at its premiere, leaving the audience convinced it was mocking the recent deaths of so many soldiers.

But soon its witty, intelligent and pointed humor won out and perhaps understood as an antidote to grief, Blithe Spirit became a box office hit.

The energy of the play springs from the lippy chemistry between Ruth and Charles, whose affection veils other unresolved feelings and attractions. Coward lures the audience into the security of a stable marriage, only to shatter it minutes later, as the layers of comic misunderstanding set off sparks of flinty dialogue, and we feel like voyeurs watching a couple fighting at a public bus stop.

This is an era where appearances are everything, and unpleasantness should never become more than a game – a dilemma wonderfully displayed not only in tone and word choice, but also in the character movements across stage, which at times converts the salon into a boxing ring, and lovers into duelists. Pillows fly, vases break and various teas and liquors are spilled in this elegant living room, which Coward shows us is no better than yours or mine. The melodic British English takes us even deeper into the scene, and through reccurring references to other parts of the house, designer Cusak Smith’s single room mutates into a complex set through which sounds and fog and lights emerge.

The real "action," however, begins with the appearance of Elvira, the ghost of Charles’ late first wife. Dressed in silver grey, she emerges through billowing curtains from an open window, grey body make-up underlining her alienation from the Condamine mansion. Despite her ethereal pale, her jewelry sparkles against her gown, adding to her loveliness. Seen and heard only by Charles, Elvira exploits her peculiar position to the fullest, manipulating everyone and assuming the center of attention, a constellation of three, and it is inevitable that Ruth will suffer, while Charles has the time of his life.

But whatever the undertones, Coward never loses his perfect comic balance: Elvira’s return is all a mistake; Madame Arcati’s séance was meant  as an evening’s diversion with friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (James Morley and Karen Winchester). But the irrepressible Madame Arcarti, clearly delighted with her unprecedented success, takes on the problem of getting rid of Elvira again amid grimaces and quarrels.

In one particularly hilarious scene she struggles to send Elvira back "to wherever she came from," trying in vain to "see" her, reaching in the wrong direction, speaking earnestly to empty space. Throughout, Aviks played this deliciously eccentric creature with fine-tuned extravagance, without upstaging the other characters.

The role appeared to come naturally to Aviks. "I’m also a bit nuts and eccentric," she said outside after the show. "But it’s a process, [where you have to "find" the character] until you can say to yourself, "I am that person."

Though many members of the audience were non-native speakers of English, the clear articulation and well-timed sight gags allowed Coward’s wit and humor to ring through. And the boisterous laughter and chatter in the lobby afterwards confirmed that after six decades, this sparkling comedy was still a hit that brings the grace of the escapist, inter-war London stage back to life.

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    the vienna review December 2007 / January 2008