Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Close encounters

It took English playwright Noel Coward less than a week to write Blithe Spirit. It was penned in 1941, not long after the Blitz bombings of London. Many critics surmise that Coward sought relief from what was an increasingly mad world through his immersion in the bizarre world he creates. Coward himself suggested the same: ‘I will be ever grateful to the almost psychic gift that enabled me to write Blithe Spirit in five days during one of the darkest years of the war.’

The irony is that Coward chooses to write a comedy about death. Murder mystery writer Charles Condomine and his wife, Ruth, invite the local psychic, Madame Arcati, to their home to perform a seance. Charles is writing a novel about a fraudulent homicidal psychic and wants to draw material from Madame’s behaviour to flesh out his character.

The trouble occurs when Charles’ first wife, Elvira, speaks to him during the seance. He is the only one present who can hear her voice. Elvira then appears to Charles—and Charles only—having apparently been summoned back to the world of the living. In spite of himself, Charles is lured into her ‘reality’ and manipulated into enjoying himself with Elvira at the expense of poor Ruth.

Blithe Spirit explores the relationship between husband and wife; it profits from the insatiable curiosities we have about our partners’ previous loves, the jealousies and the misunderstandings. The interaction between Charles (William McInnes) and his wives—alive and dead—proves full of comic opportunity.
McInnes does well playing the hen-pecked husband, whose life has been run by women, starting with his mother and continuing with his two wives, even though he remains in denial. ‘You won’t even let me have my own hallucinations,’ he cries to his second wife.

The banter between Charles and Ruth and Charles and Elvira is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the show. The contrast between the strait-laced, uptight Ruth, played by the very funny Roz Hammond, and the sexy, carefree Elvira, played by Pamela Rabe, turns the concepts of alive and dead on their heads. Rabe appears to be the most ‘alive’ of the play’s characters, with the exception perhaps of Madame Arcati.

The scene in which Elvira makes the transition from a spirit to the ghost that Charles can see and interact with is excellent. The lighting on Rabe and her dress, and even her skin colour, seem somehow

ethereal. She plays the mischievous, cheeky spirit very well, baiting Charles about the nervousness and bad humour of his second wife. He is initially defensive, but her barbs convince him to look at his second wife with new eyes.

Much comic material is drawn from the idea of returning from the dead—Rabe’s character mentions having met Merlin, playing backgammon ‘with a sweet old Oriental gentleman … Ghengis Khan’ and Joan of Arc (‘she’s quite fun!’). Coward plays with terminology and social euphemisms as well. At one stage, Charles refers to Elvira as dead, to which she replies ‘Not dead Charles—”passed over”. It’s considered vulgar to say “dead” where I come from.’

Madame Arcati, the town’s psychic, is played by the inimitable Miriam Margolyes. She is completely over-excitable, yet  presents as one of the few real characters, unaffected as she is by social expectation or convention, which contrasts nicely with the cloistered behaviour of Ruth and Charles. Well known for her appearances in Black Adder, Romeo+Juliet, and recent Harry Potter movies, Margolyes is a fabulous actor, and her presence on stage brings a palpable tension and excitement.

Coward mocks the English upper classes for their insular and snobbish attitudes. This is particularly apparent when they talk about ‘the help’ and how difficult it is to get the right staff. When the cook runs off after being completely spooked by the paranormal goings-on of the household, Ruth is consoled by her friend who reassures her: ‘Servants are awful, aren’t they? Not a shred of gratitude—at the sign of trouble they run out on you—like rats leaving a sinking ship.’

The language is gorgeously antiquated by today’s standards, with terms like ‘fiddlesticks’, ‘cowardy custard’ and ‘pompous ass’. Their quaintness does not diminish their power, as many of Coward’s dry observations about life and the human condition remain true. His fast-paced, witty dialogues, especially
between Charles and his wives, are rather like a tennis game with long, powerful rallies, heightening in intensity with each hit. It is a script full of Wilde-like observations, together with ordinary statements used to comic effect.

Directed by former MTC artistic director Roger Hodgman, Blithe Spirit is an enjoyable and well-executed production. It doesn’t stretch one’s mind and indeed was not intended to be anything more than an amusement. Coward himself called it ‘An Improbable Farce in Three Acts’. In a time when it seems our world is going mad, in ways reminiscent of Coward’s, the play provides welcome relief and carries you off to another world, albeit briefly.  

Kerrie O’Brien is a freelance writer and editor.



submit a comment

Similar Articles

V. good

  • Juliette Hughes
  • 10 July 2006

New Year’s resolutions: 1. No more TV IQ tests that expose one’s innumeracies and estimate one’s intelligence at somewhere between a One Nation voter and a newt.


Film reviews

  • Morag Fraser, Lucille Hughes
  • 10 July 2006

Reviews of the films Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World; In The Cut; Mystic River and Nicholas Nickleby.