On our first day at The Stratford Festival, we attended a matinee performance of Noel Coward’s Blitz-era comedy, “Blithe Spirit”.
I believe “Blithe Spirit” is revived too often. The three central characters—the jaundiced author, his second wife and the ghost of his first wife summoned unexpectedly during a séance—are neither interesting nor amusing. All the fun in the play comes from the medium, Madame Arcati, whose first séance causes the disastrous appearance of the ghost of the first wife. It is in watching Madame Arcati, as she tries to set things straight through further séances, all equally disastrous, that the viewer finds whatever amusement may be found in “Blithe Spirit”.
The role of Madame Arcati is a coveted one for an actress “of a certain age”. The widest range of interpretation is possible: Madame Arcati may be played as highly intelligent or as totally obtuse; as conniving or as guileless; as a charming, irresistible old lady or as a no-nonsense, take-charge busybody; as a dangerous charlatan or as a thorough professional who believes passionately in the value of her skills and services; as a woman crazy as a coot or as the most sane person in the play. I have never seen an actress fail in the part.
At The Stratford Festival, the actress playing Madame Arcati portrayed the character as pure ditz, as someone perpetually out-to-lunch. I thought the portrayal lacked color, and shade, and charm.
However, at the first intermission, my mother, who had been laughing throughout the entire first act, explained: “She’s doing a deliberate send-up of Margaret Atwood.”
And my mother was right. The hair, the clothes, the mannerisms, the odd cadences, the loopy delivery of lines, the overwhelming aura of abject daffiness: all were modeled upon Margaret Atwood. What we were witnessing was a Margaret Atwood impersonation—and it was not a flattering one.
Why the director, Brian Bedford, had wanted or allowed a send-up of Margaret Atwood, I do not know—perhaps he believed Madame Arcati as Margaret Atwood was a witty stroke of genius—but, once we were in on the joke, we were able to enjoy the deliciousness of it. Nonetheless, “Blithe Spirit” does not exist in order to mock Margaret Atwood; presenting the play in such a manner reduced it to a one-dimensional, unending inside joke.
The audience laughed itself silly all afternoon. It was as if the audience, largely Canadian, had entered the theater primed to enjoy a skewering of one of its more bizarre countryman.
We were to see the actress playing Madame Arcati the following evening, playing Elizabeth I in Schiller’s “Mary Stuart”. The actress has a long and distinguished history of Canadian stage credits, but there are no New York or London credits on her resume.
The rest of the cast members, a couple of small roles aside, were very unimpressive. The production, if transferred to Broadway or the West End, would close within a week.
The actor playing Doctor Bradman has appeared at The Guthrie (but not in a production I attended). The actress playing Mrs. Bradman had been part of the acting company at last year’s Shaw Festival, where we had seen her in two productions. Joshua and I had seen the actress playing Sara once before, on Broadway in 2011, in Bedford’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest”.
Josh and I had last seen “Blithe Spirit” in 2010, in a very poor production by Boston’s Lyric Stage Company. My brother had last seen “Blithe Spirit” in a West End production in 2005, when he and I saw British television actress Stephanie Cole appear in the role of Madame Arcati. My parents last saw “Blithe Spirit” in the early 1980s.
“Blithe Spirit” was staged in the Avon Theatre, the only Stratford Festival theater that features a traditional proscenium. The other three theaters used by The Stratford Festival have thrust stages.
“Blithe Spirit” was the only play we were to see all week in a traditional proscenium theater. Everything else we attended was at a theater with a thrust stage.
Two other Stratford Festival productions were staged at the Avon Theatre: the musical, “Tommy”; and Shakespeare’s “Othello”. We had no interest in “Tommy”. Since we were to see three other Shakespeare plays in short succession, we had decided to give a fourth, “Othello”, a pass.
A British stage designer had been called in for “Blithe Spirit”. I have seen his work before; he is not very good.
The same designer had designed Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead”, which we had seen in the West End in 2011; Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides” and Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle”, both of which we had seen at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2008; Harwood’s “The Dresser”, which my brother and I had seen in the West End in 2005; and the production of “Blithe Spirit” my brother and I had attended in the West End in 2005.
We were very disappointed in the design standard we witnessed at The Stratford Festival.
The design standard on Broadway is higher. The design standard at The Guthrie is higher. The design standard at The Shaw Festival is higher.
Everything we saw last summer at The Shaw Festival—and we saw everything on the bill—was designed to the very highest standard.
Nothing we saw this summer at The Stratford Festival was, from a design perspective, impressive in the least.