This Thursday, Theatre Erindale will continue their 2018- 2019 season with Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, directed by Melee Hutton. This post-depression era comedy follows socialite and mystery novelist Charles Condomine, played by Lucas Blakley, and his wife Ruth, played by Gillian Clare, who invite medium and clairvoyant Madame Arcati to their home to perform a séance as research for Charles’ next book. In the process, the ghost of Charles’ ex wife, played by Lindsay Wu, is brought back from the dead. Theatre Erindale’s production is laden with tricks and surprises that the cast is dutifully keeping under wraps but cast members Lucas Blakely and Kyra Keith sat down with The Medium to discuss their characters and the challenges involved in bringing this 1940’s comedy to life for a modern audience.
Blithe Spirit is a quick, witty play, full of rapid-fire dialogue. “The action goes from zero to one hundred like that,” says Lucas Blakely, snapping his fingers for emphasis. “This world is super swanky and super fiery and super-fast,” explains Keith.
The quickness of the show is made even more strenuous as the cast must speak in British accents. “The accent is tricky – going from our usual Canadian dialect to RP. The different words they use,” says Keith. “It’s made even more difficult because the characters think ten times faster than normal people do, and they’re very relaxed in that. They already know what they are going to say before the next person starts speaking. They know that they’re good with words and they love it. They relish in their skill. What’s challenging is keeping up with that pace because you still have to be grounded and articulate. Every thought has to be super clear,” adds Blakely.
“This fast-paced energetic character quality that we have to have all the time has definitely created challenges in a two-and-a-half-hour show,” Keith admits. “Keeping the endurance and the stamina all the time—timing is key for comedy. If you slow down, if you drop a que, it’s over. The joke is gone. Noel Coward is a funny guy. He writes really witty stuff, and to stay on top of that is really challenging.”
“After rehearsal you feel like you’ve just had a workout.” says Blakely. “If comedy is athletic, Noel Coward is an Olympian.”
Beyond the dialogue and the accent work, another notable challenge for the cast has been performing without an audience. Blakely explains, “You rehearse it so many times that some things might not get a laugh in rehearsal just because you’ve done it so many times. So, your first instinct is to think, oh this isn’t funny anymore, so you push it more than it needs to be pushed.” Keith adds, “But as our director Melee Hutton says, none of us are funnier than Noel Coward. He’s done the work. We just have to deliver it.”
Blithe Spirit originally premiered in London’s West End in 1941 and continued to grow in popularity, even being adapted into a film in 1945, staring stage and screen star Rex Harrison. However, the director and cast of Theatre Erindale’s production took pains to approach the story is a new and modern way.
“There’s been productions where Charles is played like a complete misogynist,” explained Blakely “and we’ve worked so hard to erase that image of him. It’s so easy to look at the lines and have the instinct to read them a certain way, but then you realize you don’t just have to say it like that just because you see words and you associate them with a certain attitude. So, for me, I took this character that is often played very one note, very rudely, and made him more charming, empathetic, and human.”
“At the time the play was written, the dynamic between female and male was so different,” adds Keith. “Things an audience would laugh at then, they wouldn’t laugh at now in the same way. I think because of where we are in time, we couldn’t ignore that these things are embedded in the text, we just had to turn them on their head and say that’s not how we’re going to play them. I’m not going to play Madam Acardi as a funny old lady—I’m going to play her as a cool spiritualist who’s intelligent. We’re taking the stereotypes that people would get right away and throwing them out the window.”
“We’re staying in the same time period and speaking the same words, but modernizing the approach,” says Blakely
Even with their unique approach to this beloved comedy, the cast still strives to fulfill the major goal of past productions. “This play was written during the war to make people laugh, and that’s what we want our audience to do,” says Blakely.
Blithe Spirit will be performed at the Erindale Studio Theatre January 24 – February 3.