21st-Century Blithe Spirit takes to the Toronto stage
Blithe Spirit has had at least a dozen commercial and non-commercial productions in Toronto in the last decade. Noël Coward’s script is funny, bitchy, progressive and spooky, and its structural features — a single set, a small cast, worthwhile roles for actresses over the age of 25 — make it an attractive choice for producers as well.
The plot is straightforward: in an English country village, a remarried widower accidentally conjures up the spirit of his first wife, making him a sort of spectral bigamist. Neither wife is altogether pleased with this arrangement, and both are determined to have him to themselves — at any cost.
iBlithe seeks to “re-invent” Blithe Spirit for the digital age, bringing it forward 70 years to find new relevance, cut some of the padding, and make it work in a post-iPhone world.
The good news is that the acting is rock solid, especially Artistic Director Rosemary Doyle as Elvira (the first wife), who has clearly had her eye on this part for awhile. Elvira requires walking a fine line between beguiling and dangerous, and Doyle runs the table on both: we see what Charles saw in her, something a lot of productions can’t quite manage.
Margaret LaMarre, as the medium Madame Arcati, has all the bristle and bluster you’d hope for, especially in the lively séance sequences; Maria Syrgiannis, as Ruth (the second wife), embraces aspects of the character which most directors seem to ignore, loving and bossy all at once.
Adrian Proszowski and Robert Keller do what they can with the neighbourly Bradmans (here rendered as a gay couple), and make the most of the ten or so lines they have between them; and David Huband, as the central character (Charles, the novelist) moves gracefully between tension, frustration and good cheer, turning Charles into something more than the cipher he usually becomes.
The trouble I had is to do with the adaptation, which felt half-hearted and, often, totally absent. The best parts of the show are still the segments where Coward’s writing is intact, and moments which segue into the new material tend to show their seams.
And reflecting upon it, I’m finding more and more fridge logic: this country house is supposedly near Chester and central London, but that’s a three-hour drive; why do they keep jumping into a painting?; why would Madame Arcati be sending postcards to India instead of emails?; why are they British at all? (Indiscreetly, the accents seem to be a bit of a challenge: if we’re adapting it anyway, why not move it to Orangeville and give the actors a break?)
One aspect really stands out as a curious choice: by convention, Blithe Spirit uses Irving Berlin’s Always as a recurring musical motif. Always is a sappy, syrupy, old-fashioned love song, and in this nostalgic period play about a love so strong it apparently conjures spirits from beyond the veil, we know why Coward chose it.
This production substitutes We’ll Meet Again, and it makes no sense to me. If Charles and Ruth are middle-aged in 2016, they would have been born in the 60s or 70s, so wartime nostalgia would be most unusual — and would a classy modern British couple like this really keep a Johnny Cash cover of a Vera Lynn song on their iPhone, filed under “dance music”? (Would they keep a dreadful cruise-ship-keyboard version?) It seems to me there are better and likelier alternatives which hit the same story notes as Always while remaining period-appropriate: why reach all the way back to Vera Lynn, of all people?
If you omit the selfie joke, tune out the Vera Lynn, and squint at the gay couple, you’ll find this production — set, costumes, accents, humour — is still firmly rooted in rural Britain in the 1940s. It’s a good production, with some strong performances and character work, but the decision to contort it through this incomplete adaptation distracts from what could have been a better show.
I’d have liked to have seen a more vigorous attempt to modernize this old play; I’d also have liked to see a more conventional take on the play with such a talented cast; coming up the middle just feels mushy.
- iBlithe plays at the Red Sandcastle Theatre (992 Queen East, near Queen and Broadview) through April 2, 2016.
- Performances run at 8 PM on March 26th, 27th, 30th, 31st, and April 1st & 2nd.
- Tickets are $20 ($15 for arts workers), and can be purchased by phone (416 845-9411) or in-person from the venue box office immediately prior to performances (Cash only.)
- Please be advised that this venue is not wheelchair-accessible.
- Although the content of this show is appropriate for all ages, the subject matter may not be of interest to the youngest people. Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Cast photo by Burke Campbell.