In this 100th anniversary year of the OLT, and the oldest community theatre in Canada, the Canadian premiere of Hay Fever is clearly the perfect choice to start the season. Performed by “home grown” Canadian Actors in 1926, one year after it premiered on the London stage (so the programme tells us), it took place in the theatre of the Victoria Memorial Museum on Argyle St. (Now the Museum of Nature) and of course it was mounted by the Ottawa Drama League, which later became the Ottawa Little Theatre. Hay Fever is linked to more Ottawa Little Theatre history because it was restaged in 1970, as part of the fundraiser for the new building (after fire destroyed the original site of the OLT) and that performance featured the gracious and most talented Florence Fancott (who always reminded me of the French actress Delphine Seyrig). David Bliss was played by Roy Hayden-Hinsley, the eternally handsome leading man in OLT productions of that period who always left the teenagers, myself included, sitting awe struck in the green room during rehearsals. The programme notes brought back all that forgotten history and it was quite a delight.
Created at the height of the roaring twenties, Hay Fever concerns the Bliss family who has invited a selection of “interesting” friends to their house for the weekend. Questions of naughty behaviour are high on the action list as the couples meet, parents collide, various individuals (mostly male) are swept away in various emotional misunderstandings fanned by the theatrics of the mother of the family the famous Judith Bliss, a retired actress who has never really left the stage!
Coward’s Bliss family feeds on a situation of permanent hyper theatricality. As the author stated in an interview in 1969, talking about himself as having a “sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise" , he perfectly described the goings on in the Bliss household as well as the flamboyant Mme Judith Bliss herself. She invites a lovesick younger man to come over one weekend as she intends to play with her “toyboy” boxer (the rather excitable Sandy handled with youthful enthusiasm by Andrew Stewart) while her writer husband David is immersed in his writing. He, in his turn has invited his own playmate: Jackie (Katie Kaufman) highly susceptible to waves of hysteria but who dresses in very bad taste, to come over for the weekend to help him “finish his book.”
Thus, unknown to Judith, her apparently recluse husband, her terribly spoilt son (Simon: Jeremy Piamonte) and her embarrassed daughter Sorel (Katie Volkert) both of whom have difficulty with British English, also have invited special guests for the weekend. These guests all come filing into the house with expectations of a most wonderful weekend in the “Japanese Room”. How wrong they are!!
Throughout the week-end, Judith manages her family and the others as though they were all in non-stop performances which put her at centre stage and make her the one who carries the show. And what a show it is.
Every one of Mme Yorke’s entrances unfolds as though she were consciously donning a new mood in a new tendency of a similar play. She adapts the action to the inspiration of each situation and always goes for the most melodramatic solution, the most diva focussed combination of hysteria and playfulness that epitomize the very essence of campy instability, leaving her poor stage partners madly in love and completely confused! The play is wild and Diana Renée Yorke’s Judith is even wilder!! She is quite something to watch. Perfect articulation and an elegant sense of tongue in cheek as she most outrageously redefines the rules of behaviour, of ethics, even of traditional family values in a way that would have the American Tea Party foaming at the mouth. Judith Bliss incarnates the transgressive, aggressively outgoing freedom of the artist in this little micro-paradise of “Bliss” that is sufficient unto itself.
The ending rounds off a perfectly chaotic weekend as bewildered guests sneak out of the house leaving the family members apparently in the midst of a terrible row – but of course we know better. And in fact, the Bliss family remarks how rude the guests were to walk out on them without saying goodbye!!
Needless to say the play is perfect and Mme Dianna Renee Yorke creates fun and pleasure on the stage. Coward’s fascination with witty language, with slick, campy theatrics, makes Judith cross boarders of all kinds. He has created a leading female character who incarnates the very essence of all that is pure theatre and this actress threw herself into it with wild abandon and great dramatic precision.
It is true that the rest of the cast did not always come up to her level but since Judith is so central, and so strong, and since director Tim Ginley captured a lot of the “posing” and goings on in a way that heightened the stylish tableau quality of those theatrical scenes, the production keeps our attention from start to finish.
I discovered Penu Chalykoff (as the nervous Richard whom Sorel, Judith’s daughter, has invited to the family week-end as her special friend, ). This actor has a bubbly comic quality that perhaps was not exactly the style suited to Noel Coward . However, he has a gift for instinctive corporeal reactions, for mimic and for letting his whole body embrace his comic character to the point where words are almost superfluous. His wrestling with the barometer that falls off the wall was priceless. Chalykoff reminded me ever so slightly of Jacques Tati, the French actor who rarely speaks in his films but uses his body in a way that produces hilarious silent comic dialogue of a period gone by. Chalykoff managed to pin that down rather well. The rest of the cast proved they had much less experience than Diana Renée Yorke. Writer husband Klaas Van Wiring who appeared to be outside his character and rather uncomfortable most of the time, did eventually let himself go during the final scenes of family free for all when he desperately tries to get them interested in his book, but it took him a long while to warm up. Zoe Tupling as Myra was extremely chic in her black dresses and the maid Clara brought in the working class as the foil, the down to earth character who heightens the extraordinary silliness of it all.
A note about Margaret Coderre Williams’ set. It worked very well right down to the peachy soft idyllic atmosphere transmitted by the colour of the walls. However why was the kitchen door right next to the front door so that people coming in and out of both openings were on the verge of collision? I’m not sure that was a desired stage effect and at times, it was rather nerve wracking.
Nontheless, a good evening of heightened theatrics, by a writer/actor who obviously was madly in Love with the theatre, its artists and all its many stage languages. Hay Fever by Noel Coward continues at the O.L.T. until October 6. Certainly worth looking into. Call the OLT at 613-233-8948