January 23, 2003: Coward, The Vortex

Donmar Warehouse, Matinee. Directed by Michael Grandage

The play that really put Coward on the map, in 1924, with Coward himself as the troubled young son, Nicky Lancaster. It has a lot of bite still, with the graphic portrayal of an effete, useless society going down the tube. Coward’s metaphor is more polite, but the idea of implosion is the same. The world is turning inward upon itself: we move from the Lancaster parlor of Act I, in town, to the Lancaster farm’s drawing room, in the country, in Act II, to the bedroom of Florence Lancaster, in Act III, by which point we have reached the near-vanish­ing point of the whirling maelstrom. Here we have a truth-telling scene between Florence and her angry son Nicky, who has just had his engagement with Bunty Mainwaring broken off by her and has discovered that Florence has been having an affair with his friend Tom Veryon, whom Florence discovered kissing Bunty in Act II. The analogy to Hamlet’s closet scene with Gertrude is so patent (except for the lack of a dead Polonius) that we half-think there will be another scene after this. But there are no more truths to be told, and the play ends, Nicky having revealed that he is using drugs and Florence having thrown his case of them out of the window, with Nicky’s head in Florence’s lap, he begging her to have no more affairs and be to him the mother she has never been before, the mother whose help he so desperately needs, and she swearing that she will be all of that. The Freudian overtones are nearly ear-splitting by this point. From the beginning of the play Florence has only pretended to like Bunty, Nicky’s new fiancée, but really is terribly jealous of her; and we get the idea that she has taken Tom as her lover (and perhaps has had other men half her age as lovers in the past) because of the incest taboo against relations with her own son.

It is no wonder that Florence’s hard-talking, common-sensical friend Helen Saville (very nicely played by Deborah Findlay), the most patient confidante, comforting Florence in the latter’s bedroom at the beginning of Act III, complains that the room is hot and is told by Florence to open the window (through which Florence will later throw the offending case of drugs). This is very much hot-house stuff, crafted to achieve the seeming tone of nonchalance for which Coward, his oversize talent to amuse almost constantly on display, takes such pains to create. Unlike the blithe tones characteristic of Coward’s comedies of this early period and later, The Vortex turns quite serious in the course of Act II and moves even further in that direction in Act III. O’Casey’s sardonic view of Coward as a lightweight, beneath contempt, was never more demonstrably wrong than in the instance of this play. Coward never preaches, but his eye for the foibles of the high society set into which his success as actor and dramatist moved him, and for what lies hidden but not really out of view beneath those foibles, is razor-sharp. These people have all the social graces, but they are invincibly shallow and by and large irredeemable. The fact that Coward doesn’t press the point leaves us free to make such judgments for ourselves. And we do.

During the second intermission two elderly (this means “older than I am”) women were having an animated conversation about the director’s decision to cast a black actor, Chiewetel Ejiofor, as Nicky. In fact, Grandage cast three persons of color: Ejiofor; Nina Socanya as the singer Clare Hibbert; and Indira Varma, a light-skinned Indian, as Bunty Mainwaring. One of the ladies com­plained that casting a black actor as Nicky made the play inauthentic as a period piece, aside from the implausibility of Florence and David Lancaster, both Caucasian, having a black son. After the play was over I engaged them in conver­sation on the point. The lady’s companion said she thought “color-blind” casting was all right. I mentioned the big debate August Wilson had with Robert Brustein (artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, in Cambridge) a couple of years back, Wilson’s point being that casting of this kind demeans the black actor, takes his identity away from him; and Brustein’s rejoinder, that denying a challenging role to a black actor because he is implausibly black effectively discriminates against black actors, who have a tough time as it is getting work. Wilson of course wants whole companies of black actors. The question of what audiences they would perform for is another, closely related question, but that did not come up in our conversation. I asked if they had seen the Orange Tree production of Havel’s The Beggar’s Opera, in which the role of Macheath is played by a black actor, an actor who was completely up to the task. They had not. In the present case, I said, I thought the Nicky had not been up to it. As directed by Grandage, in any event, he did much more shouting and emoting than seems to be in character and in period, for Nicky and his set, circa 1920. Ejiofor is a very good actor, intense and articulate, but even aside from his race I think he was not right for this role. There is more than one measure of authenticity, in other words. In this production, fine though it was in many ways, authenticity has taken second place to theatrical politics. The same was true of the Macheath casting, but the actor made us forget all about it ten minutes into the play. Here, at the Donmar, more in the vanguard (one would have thought) than the Orange Tree, there was more of an in-your-face defiant quality in the casting of Ejiofor. He somehow didn’t draw us into the character; in fact, there was an uncomfortable analogy that I, for one, felt between the discomfort and troubled-mindedness of the fictional Nicky and the actor himself, who was doing the best he could in the role and the situation in which he simply was not at ease. That lack of ease is perhaps a barometer of where we stand, at the present moment, on the fraught issue of race in the theatre.

On the less fraught issue of dancing, hardly a one of these actors could dance, the result being that the various dialogue sequences in Act II that are supposed to occur while couples are dancing were an embarrassment or fell flat. And as for Nicky’s piano playing — Nicky who was supposed to be an accomplished musician good enough to play Scriabin with the requisite feeling — they had a specially prepared piano whose keyboard had been disconnected from the works, so that the actor could seem to play, but piped music came out of a speaker. Noel Coward must’ve been turning over in his grave at every perform­ance. (It occurs to me after the fact that Coward himself originally played the role of Nicky, Coward being an accomplished composer and player of his own and others’ songs.)


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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