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Hay Fever has been
described as a comedy of bad manners. Unfortunately, Declan Donnellan has turned Coward's
wickedly funny and deceptively vicious play into something more akin to a burlesque. In
the process he has also dulled the edge of both its wit and its telling observations about
how, in real life, play-acting can be a dangerous thing.
Judith Bliss has recently retired from the stage and, in order to assuage her boredom, has invited a young admirer to her country home for the weekend. She is more than a little put out to discover that her husband, son and daughter are also planning to entertain but that none of them has seen fit to inform the other members of the family. The visitors duly arrive only to be humiliated by the rudeness and self-obsession of their hosts who insist on involving them as supporting players in an increasingly convoluted series of scenes and intrigues.
It is a simple enough tale and one which Coward uses with great skill to reveal the dangers which lurk behind the little games played by people for whom reality is much less interesting than pretense and exaggeration. Unfortunately, Donnellan doesn't seem to trust the author and has made
wholesale alterations and additions to the script which add nothing and only serve to distract from the deftly drawn dramatic arc of Coward's writing. Donnellan's Bliss family is revealed as alarmingly dysfunctional from the outset. While their menage certainly holds many dangers for the unwary, Coward reveals this slowly during the course of the play. To show them as utterly appalling from the very beginning not only undermines the plot - these patently awful people could never have lured such nervous victims into their net in the first place - but also underestimates the audience's intelligence.
As in all the best comedy, there are serious issues underlying the humor - in this case the dangers of bringing theatricality into real life - but to hammer them home so forcefully actually reduces the play's impact. It is much more effective if the audience is allowed to come upon this revelation gradually. Donnellan's production telegraphs the characters' insane self-dramatization and lack of concern for others from its first moments. If the Blisses are never likable then there is nothing for the audience to discover and their subsequent behavior is stripped of its power to shock.
Geraldine McEwan plays the supposedly bewitching Judith as a vulgar dipsomaniac, swilling whisky from the bottle, sitting with her legs apart to reveal her underwear and grabbing her young swain's bottom. This interpretation reaches heights of absurdity in the second act when the words spilling forth from Judith's mouth could simply not have been formed by the barely cogent drunkard before us. The audience is also asked to believe that Malcolm Sinclair's mild mannered, uptight - and sober - young diplomat would not only be sweet and charming towards this woman but actually find her attractive. In reality he would have been appalled and terrified.
McEwan ought to have made a superb Judith and one is inclined to lay the entire blame for her performance at the door of Declan Donnellan. This normally fine director founded the Cheek by Jowl Theatre Company in 1981 and was also responsible for two of the National Theatre's greatest recent successes with superb productions of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Tony Kushner's Angels in America. It is particularly surprising that so misguided a staging should bear his name. Worst of all, despite the best efforts of some highly talented actors, it is desperately unfunny.
Ironically, their are some excellent performances buried in this ill-conceived production. The aforementioned Malcolm Sinclair is wonderfully grey and inhibited as Richard Greatham, particularly in the agonizing scene when he is left alone with Cathryn Bradshaw's young flapper and has to make conversation over a chasm of incomprehension. Bradshaw is also impressive here, although why Donnellan has her play Jackie as the quintessential Essex girl is unclear - and certainly not borne out by anything in the script. The always excellent Sylvestra Le Touzel makes a wonderfully hearty Myra but her splendid outburst at the end of Act II is wasted since any remotely sane person would have left this house of grotesques hours before. Nick Ormerod's Hammer House of Horror set is
unrecognizable as the Blisses' comfortable Cookham residence.
...- Mark Jennett
London: Savoy Theatre - June 14 - August 14, 1999