Coward's way;Set play
No l Coward would have loved Harrogate, the soft-vowelled Yorkshire equivalent of Tunbridge Wells. Harrogate Theatre has chosen Blithe Spirit to mark his centenary, and artistic director Rob Swain is preparing his theatre's first touring production.
"Blithe Spirit is an extraordinary combination," he says. "Typically souffle-like dialogue, all the Coward qualities, but it has depth."
Initially it does seem like an improbable farce and is often played that way. Charles Condomine and his wife Ruth are terribly, terribly happy until Mme Arcati, a psychic medium, holds a seance during a dinner party. Charles suddenly sees his ex-wife Elvira, who died seven years ago. Elvira arranges "accidents" hoping that Charles will join her in the afterlife, but she only succeeds in killing Ruth.
The play is supposed to have been inspired by a female friend of Coward's. Her husband was reported "missing presumed dead" from the Navy. She fell in love with someone else; nine months later her husband turned up. Nothing funny about that, says Swain.
"The issues that Coward explores are very serious," he claims. "If you were bereaved or you lost contact with a partner, what would be the effect on you? That psychological premise is at the heart of the play.
"One's sympathies shift throughout the play. In the opening scene Charles is quite offhand about Elvira. He says, 'I don't think of Elvira that much, I wish I missed her more'. Ruth says she isn't jealous. Then those statements are deliberately and completely undone."
The usual eccentric playing of Mme Arcati has no place in this production. She is more of a bluestocking and she quietly and soberly asserts her seriousness and authority over everyone.
At Harrogate Theatre from January 21 to February 13. Details: 01423 502116. Then on tour: Theatre Royal Wakefield, February 16-20; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March2-6; Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds March 9-13. Web site: www.harrogate theatre.co.uk.