Noël Coward’s acclaimed classic opens this year’s season at the Chichester Festival, in a new production led by Broadway and West End director Daniel Raggett. Guillermo Nazara shares his thoughts on this play dealing with the dangers of pretense, to let us know his vision of a show where the tiniest truth can make the most powerful fall apart.
Some of those who cover themselves in riches, masquerade an existence of true rags. The story is not new. Neither is the play. But boy, has it aged well? We may not care for nobility anymore, but to show how great and important our lives are is still in vogue – perhaps now more than ever. We need to look perfect, we need to be perfect. And above all, we need to advertise it to the world. Otherwise, what’s the point? Happiness? Nah… That’s too big a privilege to sacrifice the rest for.
Noël Coward may have enjoyed a life of luxury, but he was by no means shallow. He knew what some (maybe the majority) of those upper-class socialites hid behind their opulent display of materialistic power: the fragility of their inner emptiness. And the best (or worst) part of it is that you don’t need to join the snob club to feel the same kind of void… or vortex.
Revived on thousands of times (maybe hundreds, I’m never been good at Maths), Coward’s dark comedy keeps speaking to its audience with the same bluntness it surely had on its first opening night. Though controversial (and thus, appealing) on its original run, the plot does not really bring anything else that the same old story: a wealthy family that has given everything they can to their son (status, education, leisure), but denied him everything that money can’t buy.
It’s done before and it’s done later. And we still take it. Because it still happens. And we can easily relate. Coward’s dramatic skills go beyond his recounting abilities and ironic undated humour, to elevate the narrative through his deep understanding of the human soul. Vanity, pretense, that frustrated feeling of losing control – or even realizing you may have never had any. It’s all there – not explored, but served raw and uncut, bringing out the futility of mankind through the desperate cries of those who have forgotten the meaning of their actions, and the purpose of their goals. Perhaps, because they never existed.
Delivered under Daniel Raggett’s baton, his take on the piece is truly exquisite. Entertaining, direct and visually symbolic, the show seamlessly manages to create an atmosphere of old-fashioned charm that gradually transforms into an uncharted sea of eerie uneasiness. Brilliantly paced and relying on effective, eye-pleasing transitions to paste the play’s original three acts all in one, the cohesiveness between direction and set design (the latter, credit to Joanna Scotcher) provide the production with an identity of its own – making its own statement and presenting itself as not one more version of Coward’s legendary work, but precisely one of those who contribute to such legend.
Starring Lia Williams as the well-off neglectful parent, Florence Lancaster, and Joshua James as her son, Nicky – their presence and chemistry (both between and with the rest of the company) are one of look those rarest gems you hardly get to spot in the theatre – but when you do, it’s just impossible to overlook. It’s really been a while since I last saw a whole cast doing such impeccable justice to their material – keeping its heart so strong and alive you no longer see it as a classic, but a piece that’s forever bound to be new.
“Oh, mother”, yells our failed hero before plumetting into his own personal abyss. Oh, mother indeed, can we utter after leaving the theatre. The Vortex is both an allegory and contradiction in terms. It’s a crude, honest depiction of the glass armour that disguises our smoky, volatile condition as humans. But it’s also an enlightening beacon of joyful emotions, thrilling our senses and seducing our intellects in the way only the performing arts can do. The Chichester Festival has opened its 2023 to an absolute triumph. Now let’s just hope for them not to be greedy, and share their jewel beyond their borders.
All pictures credit to Helen Murray.
The Vortex plays at The Chichester Festival Theatre until. Tickets are available on the following link.