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.

Macbeth and Cock in Brisbane

Macbeth, Queensland Theatre Company, The Playhouse, Brisbane, April 9. Cock, Melbourne Theatre Company and La Boite, The Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, April 9.

QUEENSLAND Theatre Company’s Macbeth isn’t set in a boardroom, or in Nazi Germany, or in the fiefdom of the Klingons. The unchanging set (Simone Romaniuk, who also designed the costumes) is a thicket of gnarled trees, Birnham Wood having already come to Dunsinane as Macbeth plays out his doomed tilt at a glory he hubristically hopes will last for generations. The men are dressed in simple battle attire, are always dirty and often bloodied. The witches are wild-haired, mud-caked creatures who slither out of the mire. Composer and sound designer Phil Slade’s opening volley of doom-laden thunder and David Walters’s shots of lightning support the louring stage picture. This is a dark and forbidding place for dark deeds.

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

QTC engaged Michael Attenborough, former artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre, to direct the Scottish play and he does so with a very straight bat indeed. His Macbeth is reverent, respectful and ultra clear in the delivery of its language. No one could leave the theatre thinking Shakespeare is hard work. These are not qualities to be derided, to be sure, but they do render this Macbeth too tame and earnest. The whiff of a production suitable for high school students hangs over it.

Attenborough has a long pedigree when it comes to Shakespeare, having, among his many other eminent positions, been principal associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 to 2002. His Brisbane cast doesn’t lack Shakespeare credentials, but perhaps Attenborough felt those credentials were insufficiently deep. Whatever the reason, the excitement engendered by the sound and light show that introduces the play is swiftly damped down as soon as the actors begin to speak. Attenborough has them deliver the text deliberately and carefully, almost as if they were still in the rehearsal phase, teasing out exactly what each phrase means.

This makes for the utmost legibility, but at the expense of dramatic tension, individual character and intensity of feeling. What is really driving each character, how they feel, what is at stake emotionally and politically, is apprehended intellectually rather than viscerally. The savagery of this society, riven by civil war and prey to the influence of spirits and auguries, is made really quite polite. This is so even in the case of the semi-clad witches, who hiss and writhe theatrically but are over-choreographed (by Nerida Matthaei). They mostly look contrived, although it’s a nice touch to have them as hooded attendants at Macbeth’s feast where they accompany Banquo’s ghost.

In such an environment Jason Klarwein’s Macbeth has many separate moments of value but they don’t add up to a tightly woven portrait of raging, flailing ambition fatally undermined by a susceptibility to portents. Veronica Neave’s Lady Macbeth is perhaps more of a piece but is too coolly efficient – a terrifically organised headmistress type who isn’t about to reveal much about herself. Thus there is little sexual spark in the Macbeth ménage and her breakdown has a guarded quality. One was a little surprised that she would kill herself.

The highly experienced Eugene Gilfedder seemed the most at ease at the matinee performance I saw. Playing a trio of small roles – Duncan, Old Man, the Doctor – he effortlessly differentiated between them and his delivery of the text was the most naturally achieved.

Macbeth was a venture between QTC and Brisbane company Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe, which enabled it to put a larger than usual cast on stage, and the state government’s Super Star Fund supported Attenborough’s involvement. The result is a strong, clean, handsome production that has attracted big audiences and given them a very nice night’s entertainment.

NO one comes out of Cock particularly well. John (Tom Conroy) is a character described as giving the impression of being drawn with a pencil and is as wishy-washy as that suggests. M (Eamon Flack in the Brisbane season of this MTC/La Boite co-production; Angus Grant played the role in Melbourne) is the teensiest bit over-bearing and controlling. W (Sophie Ross) is the same, only more manipulative. M’s father, F (Tony Rickards), a late entrant into the action, rounds out an unlikely dinner party and uses the occasion to deliver a homily on sexual preference.

Those who come out of it least well, however, are director Leticia Caceres and designer Marg Horwell. Horwell’s soft-furnishings set made entirely of white cushions gives a clue: Cock is ultimately flaccid, or at least it is in this production.

Mike Bartlett’s compact play, written in 2009, is composed of a series of scenes in which John is deciding whether he wants to be with M, with whom he has lived for seven years, or W, who inducts him into heterosexual pleasures after John makes his first go at breaking away from M.

M treats John as a child, but W adores him and offers the prospect of children. What to do? John is a great vacillator and liar, but no matter. What he thinks – well, he doesn’t know what he thinks. Others are more than happy to do the thinking and acting for him. In this scenario F may be seen as a kind of referee, albeit one who loads the dice in favour of M. But he’s there to outline the rules as he sees them pertaining in this day and age.

M and F are acting out a battle of the sexes with a twist and John is the weapon that keeps changing hands. The exercise of power is M and F’s sport, and they are prepared to play very dirty. John’s situation is more fluid. He is in one sense putty in the hands of both M and F, twisting and turning between them. But he’s also the prize, and in that respect is the combatants’ Achilles heel.

The man with the pencil-drawn outline – no heavier than 2B one would suggest – is only a fragment of a character, as are the others. We hear of M’s career as a broker, W’s as a childcare assistant and F’s loneliness following the death of his wife, but these are little more than are labels enabling a couple of good quips or, in the case of F, a detail that obliquely bolsters his line of argument. We can’t see the information as part of the fabric of a complex character. Caceres seems to want more, however. You can feel the pull towards humanising the players – F’s slightly sad old-guy tracksuit, all the tumbling around on pillows, M’s air of domesticity – but it only dilutes the impact of the play.

Cock is, or can be, an act of provocation – cold, hard-edged, laugh-aloud funny and irritating. John is the empty vessel into which are poured ideas about sex, love, ownership, power and desire; M, W and F pour away. The irritant factor is important, and an unusual one in the theatre. The depiction of the feminine in the shape of W is intensely vexing. The out-of-left-field sermonising of F is awkward and frankly unbelievable in any realistic context. M is something of a cliche – the well-off guy who likes everything just so – and John is Mr Cellophane. But as the punches keep on coming and the ducking and weaving goes on, the ground shifts and the raygun of one’s irritation is continually redirected.

I freely admit to having been influenced in this view by seeing, in New York, James Macdonald’s sparer than spare, gladiatorial production. It was cold as ice and a bracingly savage dissection of sexual power play.

Macbeth ends April 13; Cock ends April 12.