Sydney Theatre Company presents A FLEA IN HER EAR, by Georges Feydeau, in a new adaptation by Andrew Upton, in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, 31 October - 17 December.
A FLEA IN HER EAR (La Puce a L'Oreille) was written by Georges Feydeau, in 1907. Feydeau is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the theatre form that we know as farce. Comedy is the hardest form of theatre to solve, I reckon, and farce is the most formidable. It requires a verbal precision that must be matched with an equally adept physical precision. It requires, usually, a daring from the actor to engage in characterisations and plot convulsions that are exaggerated, extravagant and improbable. Above all else it demands from the artist, creating these worlds, an objective technique above any emotional realities or indulgences - a cool headedness.
Farce is in the theatre a dessert, not a meaty main course - it requires nothing more from its audience than a wholehearted willingness to throw away normal objective logicalities - suspend disbelief - and to embrace the nimble ridiculousness of the people and the predicaments that the author has concocted for our 'mindless' delight. Sydney has seen two, relatively, contemporary works, ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, (2011) by Richard Bean and NOISES OFF (1982), by Michael Frayn. - both, of British origin. Now we have a modern, Australian adaptation by Andrew Upton of this great French play in the Drama Theatre, directed by Simon Phillips (THE BEAST).
The Design by Gabriela Tylesova, both the Costumes and the complicated Set Design of the apartment and hotel locations is the first of the best two ingredients of this production. It is set, beautifully, in the period of the writing, 1907, in the Art Nouveau exploration - indulgence - in the curved shapes of nature, in the period we recognise as the Belle Epoque. (Think of the Art/Set Designs of the team involved with the 1958 film by Vincent Minnelli of GIGI - winning the Academy Award of that year; Costumes by Cecil Beaton.) The other element of the production to admire is the bravura commitment of the actors to the demands that Mr Phillips has made of them: Helen Christinson (Lucienne Hominides De Histangua), Harriet Dyer (Etienne Chandebise), Leon Ford (Etienne/Olympe), Sean O'Shea (Dr Finache/Baptiste), Kelly Paterniti (Antoinette/Eugene), Tim Walter (Marcel Tournel/Rugby); and especially, Harry Greenwood, as the vocally-disabled youth, Camille Chandebise; Justin Smith with an instinctive and charming duo as an outrageous Spanish representation of Latin jealousy, Carlos Homenides De Histangua and a disreputable hotel keeper, August; with a highly stylish, cool, calm and collected performance from David Woods as the 'innocent', Victor Emanuel Chandebise and the original Feydeau-double of his doppelgänger, Poche, a hotel porter. Mr Woods is exemplary in, with, this material - if you go, watch closely. He is expert, even, moving.
I first remember seeing this play in the old Parade Theatre for the Old Tote 'a thousand years ago', (another production, too, at NIDA with students, Directed by Adam Cook), as well as being a member of the HOTEL PARADISO company in a production by George Whaley, in the same theatre for the same company (I played Camille) - both, if I remember, in translation by John Mortimer - he, who wrote (Horace] Rumple of the Bailey. Later, a production of the THE GIRL FROM MAXIM'S was also given in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. What I remember, both as audience and actor, especially, is what Richard Cottrell reveals to us in his little essay in the program notes, that the plays of Feydeau 'are put together like an intricate piece of clockwork'. It all must mesh, fit, faultlessly, together.
It was indeed prescient of Mr Phillips, who in his notes in the same program admits that, while working on this play with students using the Mortimer translation/adaptation,' [he] discovered the dizzying delights of Feydeau. The sheer mathematical bravura of the plotting was the first thrill, and then there's something about the period in which the plays are set that separates them from the "Run for Your Wife" genre [i.e. I presume, he means the British model/tropes of farce] and lends the frantic activity a kind of poetry. ... Suffice to say that my conversion to farce as high art was complete. Admittedly it has no intellectual content, but as a form it is as precise and gymnastic as the ballet, with the added requirement of an effortless facility with comic timing and heightened characterisation."
Mr Phillips goes on to say:
All that said, I might have not have jumped back into the sandpit with this particular play had Andrew [Upton] not had the temerity to tinker with it's tightly wrought mechanisms. I was only too well aware of the Rubik's cubism of the plot and the care with which it unfolds, so Andrew's idea of adding another layer of doubling, with all the consequent amendments, filled me with a mixture of fear and excitement.Mr Phillips' instincts were alert at this 'temerity' and the Fear of this tinkering with the masterful construction of the original work is what should have taken hold of him more pertinently and that the Excitement of solving the 'challenges of Feydeau as writ, should have been sufficiently exciting to solve. For, Mr Upton has dismantled what is universally appreciated as a clockwork masterpiece of comic construction and made a new 'clock' with entirely different mechanisms, and with, dare I say, cultural sensibilities, which bristle with a definite British bias to what a 'sex-farce' may be, rather than the French flavours, in the adaptation of this play under the title of A FLEA IN HER EAR.
The original play asks for a cast of 14, with one actor playing a double role - the role of the innocent husband, Victor Emanuel, is deliberately doubled by Feydeau, with the drunken porter, Poche, in the hotel of convenience, where everyone, hilariously, meet up. Much of the original comedy lies in that trick. To decide then to reduce the actual cast size down to 9, with another necessary 5 doublings to be able to do the Upton play, does deflate some of the original inspiration of Feydeau's potential laughs (although it does make great demands of these actors - who in deed are more than valiant in attempting to make it all work. I hope the actors are fit and/or the STC has some understudies - the physical demands of Mr Phillips' production looked hair-raisingly dangerous and obviously fatiguing!)
Mr Cottrell in his essay declares that the greatest farce writer 'of them all, Georges Feydeau, is regularly revived in France and Britain, though sadly the large casts he normally demands means he is becoming something of a rarity.' It is pleasing that the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) have elected to stage this work. It is a pity, then, that the tradition of its predecessor, the Old Tote Theatre Company, that created their productions as writ, with the original Feydeau castings, has not been followed. One hopes the decision by the Artistic Director of the STC, Andrew Upton, to create 5 other doublings of roles for this production was not just for the sake of economics. I could not grasp any real gain, in this production, to have done so. Whatever the reason(s) it seems to me to diminish Feydeau's masterwork and like the STC's decision to present Caryl Churchill's play LOVE AND INFORMATION, Directed by the new Artistic Director of the STC, Kip Williams, last year, with only 8 actors, or the cut down adaptation by Mr Upton of the French classic, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, it almost defeats the reason to present the work of the original writer. (Mr Upton had even cut the wedding of Christian to Roxane in CYRANO??!!! N.B. the new Artistic Director Kip Williams was the assistant Director of that work.)
I wonder what Mr Upton's cast population of his adaptation of Chekhov's THREE SISTERS will be next year, Directed by Mr Williams. It requires a cast of 14 with some ten or so extras to present his intentions. (I should add that there are many actors wanting to work and available for the STC and would be happy to 'play', to be employed, as artists.)
Now, although the Design conception by Ms Tylesova had us expectant of a Belle Epoque vision of this play - one that has the ingredients which make it, as Mr Phillips tells us: "a kind of poetry" - of intelligence, wit, style with the grace of the Belle Epoque from the City of Light, and an attitude to sex - infidelity - that has the famous French je ne sais quoi, a joie de vivre of the theatrical that is sophisticated in its sensuality. What Mr Upton and Mr Phillips give us, instead, however, is a British vulgarity of a Benny Hill, Carry-on, Brighton Pier post-card tradition of the 'naughty but nice' innuendo and smut of the 1950's -1960's kind. Even to making the ground floor Room 7 of the hotel called: SNATCH TIME, in this adaptation, a sinister room of Sado-Masochistic sexual grotesque - represented by lots of primary colour lighting (Nick Schliepper) with smoke curling out through the door, with grim gurgling noises, (Steve Toulmin) and shocked guests, who had accidentally run into the room, running out, screaming, or with hands over their mouth, suppressing a need to throw-up (I supposed!) - concluding with the leather handle of a whip up the orifice of Room 7's occupant appearing in a group sex collision in the main room with the revolving bed!
Oh, so hilarious!
Oh, so Feydeau!!!?
Oh, so Upton/Phillips!
The Upton dialogue is often pierced with anachronisms and allusions that are more cringe making than funny, more your local Aussie blood-house thrash music pub than a 1907 Parisian environment evocation. Although, I should record the audience (what sounded, to me, like a-rent-a-crowd), on the opening night, found it too, too funny. And it is kinda funny (think Simon Phillips' recent production of Eddie Perfect's, THE BEAST). It's just not very Feydeau funny. Some of us had expected a French Dessert, a Soufflé, but what we were served was Spotted Dick! Those of us that didn't find it funny had expected to see a Feydeau farce - it pays to read the full credits, doesn't it?: 'in a New adaptation by Andrew Upton.' One could of (should of) braced for what happened on the international stage of the Sydney Opera House to another famous playwright's play. I'm embarrassed for my French friends and for what they might think of this representation of one of their cultural icons. We had just got over the CYRANO distress.
One was in awe of the stamina of the performers. One was appreciative of a few of the performers who had a knowledge of the manners of the period of the play and an appreciation of the stylistic necessities to deliver it and were able to transcend the vulgarities of the writing of Mr Upton and the production choices of Mr Philllips. I laughed out loud three or four times in the two and half hours - at the cleverness of the skill of three or four of the actors - but mostly lamented what had happened to Georges Feydeau's farce, which, probably, most of the audience thought they were watching - after all his name, reputation, was attached.
No, no, no, this was another adaptation - appropriation - by Mr Upton of another playwright's work (masterpiece). I have not much enjoyed Mr Upton's adaptations: his Russian plays, his Norwegian, his French, his German etc etc for the STC and other companies, and wished that if he had something to say - to tell us - that he would write his own play. Rather, he has stood on the shoulders of other writers' greatness. It has been sometime since we have seen an original work of his. The last I believe being RIFLEMAN in 2007 - 9 years ago - which travelled, internationally, like , later, most of his following adaptations, whilst Artistic Director of the STC, under the auspice of the STC. Usually, but not always, with Cate Blanchett in a principal role. THE PRESENT, an Upton treatment of Chekhov's PLATONOV, opens soon on Broadway - hoping for some Tony nominations, I presume.
The production plays until the 17 December. Time to see it if you must.
P.S. May I recommend an American farceur whom I have only read but love: Avery Hopwood (1882 - 1928).
FAIR AND WARMER (1910).
LADIES NIGHT (1920) - especially, delicious.
GETTING GERTIE'S GARTER (1921).
They, of course, have large casts of artists (actors), so shall probably never be seen at the STC with all that Administrative Staff to take care of - pay.