Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15.

“I never realise how dead I am until I meet people like you,” says the rather correct “diplomatist” Richard Greatham (Alan Dukes) to the chatelaine of the unorthodox country house to which he’s been invited for the weekend. Call it the Bliss factor, a tornado-like life force that sweeps up everyone in its path. At least it does in Sydney Theatre Company’s exhilarating new production of Hay Fever, which director Imara Savage gives an intense, sexy energy that blows away the cobwebs so often clinging to Coward and his 1925 comedy of bad manners.

At the centre of the whirlwind is Judith Bliss (sublime Heather Mitchell), an actress who is nominally retired but has simply transferred her theatrics to a more intimate setting. As we soon discover, each member of the Bliss family has asked a friend to stay without telling the others. They are not natural hosts and are wildly self-dramatising. There will be complications, not the least of which is who will get to stay in the Japanese room.

STC Hay Fever Heather Mitchell. Lisa Tomasetti

Heather Mitchell as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard’s confession to Judith is the key to this work. Hay Fever celebrates those people in the world who burn more brightly than others because they have fewer limits. They are the sun and we are bits of space junk caught gratefully in their orbit, at least for a while.

When Coward wrote Hay Fever, World War I just a handful of years in the past and the Edwardian era was over. Time to have some fun. Coward was only 24 at the time but had been moving in artistic circles for more than a decade – he was a professional actor from the age of 11 and wrote his first West End play at 20. His family was not well off and Coward was entirely self-made. It’s tempting to think that the get-the-guest antics of the Blisses were inspired not only by Coward’s acquaintance with American actress Laurette Taylor and her games-playing family, but were also a reaction to the days in which his mother had to take in lodgers to make some money.

Coward claimed to have written Hay Fever in three days without revision and there’s no reason to doubt him. That’s not a criticism – he wrote Private Lives in “roughly” four days, by his account – but it does remind us not to get too profound about the piece. Indeed, the superficiality is the point of it and Savage – with one caveat – astutely finds the right tone for today’s audience. Her production is invigoratingly untethered from the 1920s, picking up on the contemporary adoration of self while being not in the slightest bit condemnatory.

The daughter of the family, Sorel (Harriet Dyer), indulges in one or two little shows of conscience, voicing the belief that everyone in the family should behave rather better, but her desire to be a nicer, finer person is more pleasing concept than possibility. Nor should it be. Sorel, played by Dyer with a mixture of whiny childishness and acute perceptiveness, is clever enough to know that “the people we like put up with it because they like us”. It’s an unvirtuous circle. When this lot of guests have gone there will be other willing victims.

STC Hay Fever. Lisa Tomasetti

Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sorel’s brother Simon (Tom Conroy) and she have no visible occupation and still live at home with Judith and their father, David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), who writes very bad novels and is not dead, as Judith’s slightly dim young guest and admirer Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville) had surmised. David is, in fact, in the house and has invited the naive Jackie Coryton (Briallen Clarke) to the country so he might study her as “a useful type”. That Sorel’s guest is the very Richard who is enchanted by Judith hints at the roundelay that develops, one in which Simon’s sophisticated guest Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson) will be discovered by Judith in a compromising position with David. He is lying on top of Myra on the floor.

The teasing Is endless and wickedly manipulative and the guests don’t stand a chance. Nor does the audience really. As Savage showed with last year’s After Dinner, an early comedy by Andrew Bovell (also at STC), she has a great eye for physical comedy and a superb cast to enact it. Richard, for example, gets two of the best sight gags in the show – beautifully played by Dukes – and they give the mature diplomat warmth and colour. Conroy’s Simon plays up his bohemian credentials by drinking wine at breakfast and professing violent love for women despite exuding an air of being not particularly interested in them. Judith is one of the great comic roles in 20th century theatre and Mitchell makes her every whim, tic and idiosyncracy adorable (bar one, but that’s the caveat I’m coming to and it’s not her fault). Mitchell’s pre-Raphaelite beauty is intoxicating, as is her way with a seductive phrase. “I’ve been pruning the calceolarias,” she throatily purrs to Sandy. It’s an invitation to unimagined delights that seduce us all.

In what is perhaps the trickiest role to pull off in this updating, Genevieve Lemon plays Judith’s housekeeper (and former dresser) Clara in the manner of a beloved, eccentric retainer in a conventional British farce. It’s wacky, no doubt about it, but fits in with the idea of theatricality not only as an attribute of the Bliss family but as a style of performance.

STC Hay Fever3

Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The idea of life as an act is gorgeously reinforced by designer Alicia Clements’s divinely ramshackle conservatory, the centrepiece of which is a claw-foot bath that doubles as a sofa, and the lurid curtains that frame the stage and close at a majestic pace. The boldest example is the inclusion of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, lip-synched by Judith in lieu of a lovely little song at the piano. It is a surreal, provocative choice although not necessarily out of keeping with Judith’s mercurial temperament. Less successful – this is the caveat – is Savage’s decision to replace the names of British newspapers with those of Sydney ones. Judith is proposing a return to the stage and speaks of the thrill of a first night, the critics “all leaning forward with flowing faces, receptive and exultant …” Savage has Mitchell address the audience directly here and, just for a moment, the bubble that encloses these characters bursts. The Winehouse song – just – stays inside that bubble.

That seemed to me a misstep in a production where artificiality is so prized. Savage’s brilliant ending says it all. The climactic touch is a halo of light that envelops the Bliss family, accompanied by a lush, golden-days-of-Hollywood swelling of strings. (Trent Suidgeest is responsible for the lighting; Max Lyandvert for sound design and music.) The guests have slipped away and the Blisses are now at their most relaxed and content, a family very much at peace, albeit noisily, with one another in their own little world.

Hay Fever ends on May 21.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney

Belvoir St Theatre, February 27

WHEN theatre practitioners talk about putting Australian voices on stage they tend to be talking about Australian plays and Australian content – what else would they mean? Well, at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre, artistic director Ralph Myers and resident director Simon Stone take it a step further by preferring to use the Australian accent on stage, no matter where the play may be set. There were no upper-class British elocutions to be heard in Myers’s production last year of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, no American cadences in Stone’s Death of a Salesman (he unwisely also deleted the epilogue and had to reinstate it, but that’s a separate matter).

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Now Stone offers Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without the perfume of southern accents. It’s a bold call, and not one that persuades unconditionally, but nevertheless the decision is all of a piece with a keen desire to make an audience see important texts anew. To hear them anew. No Tennessee Williams play was harmed in the making of this production. (We may also assume that when Stone puts Hamlet on the Belvoir stage later in the year he won’t ask Toby Schmitz to play the Dane in Elizabethan English.)

There’s a Brechtian element here. It is disconcerting to hear Willy Loman talk about upstate New York towns and sound exactly like Colin Friels. It is jolting when, in Private Lives, Elyot says women need to be struck regularly, like gongs, and to see and hear Schmitz as a present-day Sydney lad about town. And it is deeply dislocating to hear Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as if it were set on a big property somewhere in rural Australia.

Such a provocation is stimulating and challenging – if one gains more than one loses. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I give Stone the win. I’d like to see the production again and think I’d get more from it on another viewing, which is pretty much my criterion for a successful evening.

But still.

I think it’s relevant that on the night I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the sounds of the American South frequently trembled on actors’ lips before being suppressed. Those sounds, so soft and stretched and swirled in the mouth, are at one with the rhythms of the text and have an almost palpable sensuality along with intimations of decay. Think of the sentimental references to Brick’s alma mater Ole Miss; that’s as mushy a phrase as you can find. And “mendacity” – the key word in the play – begs to be heard drawn out into four distinct, deliberate, southern syllables.

No wonder the actors appeared to be attracted strongly to this way of speaking. Embedded in the very sounds are layers of meaning and yearning. Without the accent Williams’s words no longer seem quite as sumptuous, and with that slightly slack quality that makes one think of licentiousness.

Does that sound like stereotyping? Sure does, which is possibly one of the reasons Stone wanted to do away with such a rich element of the play. The ruthless excision of that element forces the audience out of an ole plantation, “I wish I was in Dixie” mentality. Interestingly, the new Broadway revival goes hell for leather in that direction it would seem. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of January 17 notes “it is saturated in Southern Gothic atmosphere” and that the sound design includes snatches of servants singing spirituals and work songs – “Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton”. Lordy indeed.

I can understand Stone wanting to run at speed from that kind of presentation for an Australian audience. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to be mined for its application to the here and now.

Need, greed, manipulation and the coruscating exercise of power within a rich dysfunctional family lie at the heart of the play. Big Daddy (Marshall Napier) is dying and doesn’t know it; older son Gooper (Alan Dukes) and his fecund wife Mae (Rebecca Massey) think they should take over; both Big Daddy and Big Mama (Lynette Curran) prefer formerly golden younger son Brick (Ewen Leslie); Brick is trying to drink his way out of a life he despises and his wife Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) will do anything to hang on to what she’s managed to claw for herself. Meet the family.

As they go around and around on Robert Cousins’s revolving set with its rainbow curtain of streamers, everyone except Brick vies for ascendency in the shadow of Big Daddy’s demise. McKenzie is a wonderfully angular Maggie, and her tense skittering about at the play’s opening shows exactly what kind of cat she is: fast, wily, hungry, not quite enough meat on her bones. Napier will be a fine Big Daddy once he gets off the book (he was a late inclusion in the cast due when Anthony Phelan fell ill and had to do some scenes script in hand on the night the media attended) and Curran’s Big Mama, by turns vivacious and clingy, is vividly conceived.

But it’s Leslie’s handsome, desperate, disintegrating Brick who is at the core of this production. In a way he’s the only one who no longer wants anything, except a drink. He hates the tawdriness of it all – the loss of his shiny youth, his football prowess, the way in which his intense connection with his friend Skipper, now dead, is cheapened by everyone. The family all talk about the nature of the friendship and no one seems to care too much about what it was, as long as Brick can get it up long enough to impregnate Maggie. Mendacity rules, as the final image of the production proves. You could weep for Brick’s utter desolation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at Belvoir St Theatre until April 7 and transfers to the Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 10-21, 2013.