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.

Five plays

The Pride, Side Pony Productions, Bondi Pavilion Theatre, March 25; Fight Night, The Border Project/Ontroerend Goed, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, March 26 (matinee); The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Lambert House Enterprises, Gingers at the Oxford Hotel, March 26; Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre, March 27 (matinee); Stitching, Little Spoon Theatre, TAP Gallery, March 27.

WHEN I was in fulltime employment I rarely went to a matinee and I saw shows almost exclusively at their opening performance. First nights are usually great fun, of course. The foyer is crowded with friends and acquaintances of the cast and crew and many in the audience know one another well. The best seats in the house are given over to critics, politicians and maybe a celebrity or two; there will be industry figures and perhaps a few representatives of sponsors; and many – sometimes all – in the house will not have paid for their tickets. I don’t want to call this an artificial situation because it is an accepted, regular part of the process of putting on a play, an opera, a ballet or whatever. But it is not representative of the rest of the season.

That standing ovation given to a musical may indeed turn out to have been for one night only, fuelled by the show’s producers and invited celebrities leaping immediately to their feet. The house that didn’t have a spare seat at the premiere may be far easier to access once word of mouth does its influential work. On the other hand, it’s sometimes possible to find much greater enthusiasm for a piece when it’s played for a general public audience than for a tough opening night crowd – the opera is a good example.

Whatever the result, I always find it rewarding to see a show during the run, to observe the make up of the audience, to listen to their comments and to gauge their reactions.

The cast of The Ensemble's Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

The cast of The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

This past week I saw five pieces of theatre, only one of which – Stitching – was having its opening night. It was therefore a good week in which to see paying customers in action. In Fight Night, the audience is literally seen in action because its attitudes help shape the show. It is a deliberately manipulative piece in which the audience is asked to vote for actors representing politicians in an election. Additionally, the audience is asked to give some information about age, income, and attitudes. I was at a matinee, so wasn’t entirely surprised to see that more than 85 per cent of my audience was aged 60 or older.

At Fight Night everyone is given an electronic pad that can register choices, although as is the case with most situations where one appears to have alternatives, there are strong limits to the number and nature of those offered. The actors make their pitches, we vote, they throw in a couple of not entirely democratic twists and turns, and we’re left with one person who is supposed to be the one most of us want. The result is actually deeply unsurprising.

The best bit at the performance I attended was near the end, when one of the actor/politicians persuades some audience members to opt out of this obviously skewed process by handing in their electronic pads and leaving the theatre. One man in this dissident group stomped out, throwing the word fascists at us as he departed. The actor representing the last politician in the race commented that this man hadn’t understood the play, but I thought that unfair. Fight Night only works if the audience pretty much agrees to be manipulated, so I thought it a bit thick to knock someone for having been taken in to the degree that he actually felt something important was really at stake.

If you want to see important things at stake, The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park is the go – if you can get a ticket. The season at The Ensemble’s Kirribilli home was sold out very early but there are two extra performances at The Concourse in Chatswood. It is highly recommended.

In acts set 50 years apart, there is a beautifully wrought discussion about race and history seen through the prism of a family home, although with intimations of the wider world. In the first half a white couple is about to move, their house having been sold to a black family – unseen – who will be the first coloured people in the neighbourhood. In the second half the house, now dilapidated, is about to be demolished. Both situations spark fractious argument undimmed by a half-century of change.

Tanya Goldberg directs an unimprovable cast of seven – Paula Arundell, Thomas Campbell, Briallen Clarke, Nathan Lovejoy, Wendy Strehlow, Richard Sydenham, Cleave Williams – in a production that is exceptionally funny, sometimes quite shocking, and always very, very sharp.

I also very much enjoyed The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, David Drake’s autobiographical 1993 piece (originally a solo show) about growing up gay. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the additional scene Drake has written to take same-sex marriage into account, but Ben Hudson and James Wright’s performances lit up the tiny Gingers space. There’s nowhere to hide for actors and audience members alike when both are scarcely an arm’s length apart and there was lots of lovely eye contact.

Hudson and Wright gave their all in front of a very small audience. It was undeservedly small, but part of the truth of theatre is that the house won’t necessarily be packed at all times – something the inveterate first-nighter doesn’t get to see. The cast of The Pride had the same experience this week as they acted out what was, for me, a fairly ho-hum fable about domination and the loss of it. The Pride has had success elsewhere but I was underwhelmed. As I was about Anthony Neilson’s two-hander Stitching, which has also received praise in other productions. Stitching presents a relationship in big, big trouble. To spice things up it jumps around in time and introduces hot and heavy role-playing.

Unfortunately actors Lara Lightfoot and Wade Doolan were unable to make me believe in their plight or sympathise with it, but others may feel differently. That’s the beauty of an audience, that singular entity made up of many individuals.

The Pride ends on April 5. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me ends April 6. Stitching ends April 12. Fight Night ends April 13. Clybourne Park ends at The Ensemble April 19 (season sold out); extra performances at The Concourse, Chatswood, April 23 and 24.