Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Gate Theatre, 'The Vortex': The Hostess With the Mostess

Noël Coward said that his plays should foremost entertain the audience. Can Annabelle Comyn get The Vortex to sing a more provoking note? 

Gate Theatre
Feb 18-Mar 22

My review of The Vortex by Noël Coward coming up just as soon as I labour eternally over the delusion that I somehow matter ...

“The main motive was to entertain the audience” reflected Noël Coward on his theatrical career, to the fury of the theatre-goer who hopes for a visit not dashed or unchanging. Coward’s exploits of drug abuse and extramarital affairs among the English upper classes in his 1924 play The Vortex broke ground for his career. Now the directorial hand of Annabelle Comyn reaches past the martini glass for a truth more satisfying.

A party of high society theatricals arrive at the home of Florence Lancaster - a self-licensed extraordinaire with divine frocks and a lover the same age as her son. Ordinary living is painfully mundane in Coward’s drawing room so guests reaffirm their fantastic lives with opinions on art and outclassing others with ruthless ratings (“10 for stupidity”). When Florence’s son Nicky returns home with a fiancé, his mother seems ready to snap.

Not much happens in case of plot, leaving characters to their unserious reverings over cocktails and show tunes, their lives prattling on like the piano keys of Philip Stewart's jazzy arrangements. Comyn's tuneful direction coordinates her actors' vocal deliveries, timed to serve Coward's swishing dialogue with its usual salt.

At the helm is Susannah Harker who is sharp as a knife as Florence, her voice rasping at the heights of her flamboyance. Meanwhile, Mark O'Regan's tactless turn as stinging socialite Pauncefort could reduce a bodybuilder to tears.

At the centre of Coward's "vortex of beastliness" is a cry for some serious moral reality, and Comyn tries to raise the need for this by cranking up the play's speciousness. Characters are arrested by crackling lightbulbs from Chahine Yavroyan's lighting, reducing them to glossy surface, nothing more than additional fixtures in Paul O'Mahoney's art deco set. Stewart's music trots them into triviality but Rory Fleck Byrne's furious steps when Nicky dances the Charleston suggests a desperate need to escape.

When destruction ensues it is Fiona Bell's loyal turn as Florence's friend Helen who guides the play towards a meaningful conclusion. Unfortunately we don't buy the ending as Harker, having reached the ceiling of her performance, is unable to touch down and transform.  

Nonetheless, Comyn's staging is charmless and fascinating at the same time. Her sensibilities as a director to heighten the play's illusions of seriousness may just make the The Vortex more deadly than ever. 

What did everybody else think?

No comments:

Post a Comment