by Noel Coward
The thing that always strikes me about southern Ontario, at least since I've lived in the Maritimes, is that it seems to be about waist deep in money and topsoil, and that's particularly true of the Niagara Peninsula. So it's no surprise that the Shaw Festival looks as if it's doing extraordinarily well -- at least, again, by the standards of the Maritimes. It's able to specialize in opulent and elaborate sets and large cast productions. This year's production of Hay Fever is a perfect example of this: its nine-person cast had plenty of room to roam in William Schmuck's sumptuous country home, with its huge entryway toward the back, its dramatic open stairway rising to our right, and its profusion of turn-of-the-century English country house details. (In fact, very much the same sort of set he used in Coward's sister play to Hay Fever, Easy Virtue, a couple of years ago.) All the resources of traditional comedy of manners were right there, and used with admirable professional skill to produce an evening which, if not exactly profoundly moving or enlightening, is unremittingly entertaining and sometimes hilarious.
As is often the case in Noel Coward's plays, the fundamental premise of Hay Fever is a conflict between bourgeois repressive conventionality and scandalous Bohemian eccentricity, between dignified discipline and gay abandon. And, also as usual, it's not exactly clear that we're supposed to side unequivocally and unqualifiedly with freedom and genius. Coward invites us to laugh at everybody.
The occasion -- there really isn't a plot, as Coward himself agreed -- of Hay Fever is a weekend at the country home of the Bliss family. The family stars Judith Bliss, a slightly over the hill actress (ostensibly but perhaps temporarily retired), as Mom. She's played here, with brilliant, over-the-top histrionics, by Fiona Reid, in a performance that's all by itself worth the price of admission. Because Coward's script invites the actress to play at being an actress, everything is in "quotation marks," as it were, and so excess is exactly what's called for, and what Reid gives us. Her take when she notices her husband rolling on the floor with one of the weekend guests, which involves collapsing down about four steps of the staircase, is perhaps the high point of the excess, but throughout the evening her veering from conversation into remembered script, her taking of every situation as a dramatic occasion, is not only flamboyant but also dead accurate.
Mom's supporting cast for the weekend includes husband David, a writer who spends most of his time in an upstairs study (Michael Ball, appropriately imperious and self-absorbed), son Simon, who seems to be an aspiring artist (Mike Shara, debonair and apparently ineffectual and extremely nice), and daughter Sorel, who doesn't seem to do much other than be madly impetuous and impatient (Severn Thompson, delicately timed and focused). There's also a spectacularly cranky maid, dealing with the follies of the family with a kind of practical non-nonsense cynicism (Mary Haney, experienced and professional at this sort of thing).
We're introduced to the family as we find that each of them, unbeknownst (as they say) to the others, has invited someone for the weekend. No preparations have been made, of course (Judith to Clara: "Will you get various rooms ready?" "I shall have to -- they can't sleep in the passage!"), so the weekend shapes up from the very beginning to look like the disaster it actually does become.
As the guests arrive, rather like the hobbits at Beorn's house, things heat up. Judith's young worshipper Sandy (Kevin Bundy, appropriately naive and stunned), invited so that she can have someone around to pay court to her celebrity, isn't aware she has a husband ("I thought he was dead." "No, he's not dead, he's upstairs"). Myra, an "older" woman (Laurie Paton, acerbic and sceptical; we might remember her from TNB's wonderful Importance of Being Earnest a few years ago) has been invited by Simon, who's doting on her ("I should like to kiss you and kiss you and break everything in the house and then jump into the river"), though -- or perhaps because -- she and Judith heartily detest each other. Richard (David Schurman) is an "older" man who's been invited down by Sorel, and Jackie (Lisa Norton) is to be the guest of David ("She's an abject fool," he says, "but a useful type, and I want to study her a little in domestic surroundings.")
If you can't keep all that straight, it's not important, because the dramatic and impetuous pairings-off that ensue don't have anything much to do with anybody's plans. The second act is what we see of the catastrophe, as various members of the Bliss family hurl themselves impetuously on various guests in various extravagant ways, a wonderful parlor game called "In the Manner of the Word" is, well, not quite played, and in general things get right into the handbasket and are off down the hill. The main thing is to get the timing right, and pretty much everybody does: this is as complicated a play to block and choreograph as I've seen in some time, and if there was one thing to admire in the production as much as Fiona Reid's Judith, it was everybody's ensemble work. Clearly, Christopher Newton still has the touch (though I'm still not sure about some of the business he added to the opening of Act III, as the guests come down to breakfast: struggling with hot serving pieces and a touchy coffee machine wore thin fairly quickly). As Coward remarked in an introduction to a later edition of the script, "most of the comedy lines depend for their effect more on situation than on verbal felicity," and in cases like that, it's all in the timing.
The play ends with the Bliss family happily screaming at each other over breakfast, while, behind them, the bedraggled and defeated guests, allied in desperation, carry their luggage down the stairs and out into the rain, escaping back to the city almost unnoticed by the family, who are completely preoccupied with their own delicious quarreling. It's a wonderful, nonsensical evening, and if it all doesn't quite amount to Oscar Wilde, it feels awfully close in this production.
Something that needs to be said about the Shaw Festival is that, consistently, it provides superlative programs. It's always worth arriving fifteen or twenty minutes early to allow time to poke around in the rich array of information and ideas you're handed with your ticket stub. Going far beyond the usual perfunctory cast and crew biographical blurbs, they provide background on the playwright, the theatre history, the social context, the dramatic tradition the play comes from, and whatever else might contribute to helping an audience attend to the play with intelligence and informed attention. I wish it were more common for theatre companies to be able to afford such luxuries, and felt they were important.