Hot on the heels of the centenary of Noel Coward's birth in December comes this revival of Blithe Spirit, one of his longest, most elegantly structured and hilarious plays. In it, says director Dominic Hill, "Coward examines marriage, and especially the way that you can learn about your present relationship by comparing it with a previous one". Coward "revisits his Private Lives, commenting on passion and infidelity".
If the play's main theme is marital discord, its plot is wonderfully farcical. Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, hold a seance under the eccentric eye of the clairvoyant Madame Arcati.
It results in the unexpected arrival of the ghost of Elvira, Charles's first wife. He now has to cope with the demands of two wives. But when Elvira kills Ruth, both ghosts gang up on Charles, and he flees the house.
Although Coward wrote the play in 1941, there is no mention of the war. This production, designed by Jonathan Fensom, is set roughly in the 1930s. Anxious to get away from the idea that it is just "an idle comedy of manners", Hill aims to avoid "the light and airy feel that tends to characterise Coward's work".
The design avoids grandeur, with the "play's surreal events firmly rooted in real life". Charles's relationship with Ruth is, says Hill, more cerebral, less sexual, more grown-up" than his rapport with first wife, "which was much more passionate", as the great argument they have in the third act shows. The play explores "what happens when his new lover meets his old lover, and what Charles learns about himself".
Charles's attitude to the ghostly Elvira, who cannotbe seen by Ruth, is that of a "man who is delighted tohave a secret, a private space of his own". There is also a strong sense that this idea of having a secret echoes Coward's attitude to his own homosexuality, which he was forced to hide during most of his life.
But what about the play's attitude to women? Critics have pointed out that women get a raw deal in Blithe Spirit: Ruth is a shrew, Elvira unfaithful, Madame Aracti a fool. Even Charles's mum is a nag. "Yes," says Hill, "Coward's idea is that Charles is finally relieved to be alone - his idea of bliss is a world without women."
The ending, in which Charles leaves both hiswives, is quite cynical according to Hill. "He feels liberated and shrugs off the two women with no sense of guilt." But the play's last image of the two ghosts smashing up the house evens up the balance in the war of the sexes: it is a comment on female frustration as well as a symbol of the wreckage of Charles's married life.
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