The Shaw Festival has produced Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. A wonderful play about a séance with a professional psychic, that brings a man’s first wife back from “the other side” as a spirit. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable production that does have a few headscratchers.
In case you forgot the plot entirely, Ruth (Donna Soares) and her husband Charles (Damin Atkins) are enjoying their second marriage in a beautiful house in the English countryside. Charles wants to write a novel that involves psychics and invites Madame Arcati (Deborah Hay), a local professional in the field, for a séance so he can get some of the language and tricks of the trade. The result is that his first wife Elvira (Julia Course) appears as a spirit that can be seen and heard only by him. You can imagine the complications when he speaks to Elvira and Ruthe but the latter cannot hear what the spirit is saying.
It is a funny play starting with the behaviour of Edith (Katherine Gauthier), a Navy girl, who dashes from place to place in the house as if she were racing. Atkins and Soares handle Coward’s repartee expertly as they spar about the virtues and vices of Charles’s first wife. The conversation continues with the arrival of their friends Dr. Bradman (David Adams) and his wife (Jenny L. Wright).
The main event is the arrival of the eccentric psychic who presides over a bizarre ritual that establishes contact with the other world. It is a difficult scene to stage not because of the lights, noises and reactions but because of how Madame Arcati acts. Director Mike Payette gives us an exuberant, at times robust Madame Arcati that means a lot of overacting by Deborah Hay. The problem is that much of it, be it overdone or underdone, is not funny. Many great actresses from Margaret Rutherford to Judi Dench have tackled the role with mixed results that depend as much on the director as on the talent of the performer. It is in that context the I place Hay’s and Payette’s success as fair.
The final headscratcher is the behavior of Edith when she greets people at the door and she bows almost to the floor. Charles and Ruth advised her not to sprint across the house; they would not allow her to do such a ridiculous form of greeting, that is not funny.
The exasperated Charles and Ruth, faced with the cool and infuriating Elvira bring the laughs that make the production enjoyable.
The set and costumes are designed by James Lavoie. The set is aggressively green, I mean completely green. Some people may find it far too green but I did not mind it at all. It is tastefully if economically furnished with large curtains and windows at the back for spirits to walk though.
The costumes are something else. In the first scene Charles and Ruth receive the Bradmans for dinner. The suits that Charles and Dr. Bradman wear are so hideous that I venture to guess they must have been designed by a committee. In the next scene, Charles appears in his pajamas and house coat that was clearly chosen by the same committee. The ladies are dressed tastefully and Madame Arcati wildly, as becomes her character.
The headscratchers are just that in an otherwise fine production of a play that has been produced only twice before in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in 1979 and and 1993. What is wrong with you people?
Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward continues until October 8, 2023, at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com