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Brits Behaving Badly

NoËl Coward's classic comedy Hay Fever is a play about, well, nothing

Photos by Pat Redmond

NoËl Coward's classic comedy Hay Fever is a play about, well, nothing

We might be inclined to believe otherwise, but the 21st century cannot claim to have perfected bad behavior. Long before acting out became a consistent profit center on cable TV reality shows, English playwright Noël Coward established the gold standard for poor impulse control with his 1925 play Hay Fever, a comic portrait of his own era's entertaining incorrigibles. And those wackos had style. Clearly, in the 21st century, we need to up our game.

To glean a few pointers, we spoke with Ingrid Craigie, who stars in the Gate Theatre's production of Hay Fever as Judith Bliss, reluctantly retired actress, persistent center of attention, mistress of an English country house not so very far from the madding crowd.

Craigie's character Judith is not exactly sweet Mother's Day-card material. Her style is more meteoric than maternal, bound to light up a room (and shake things up) wherever she goes. "She wants to taken seriously," says Craigie, "but even more than that, she wants to be adored and respected. She wants the status, the trappings of fame."

It's a pity that Judith finds herself wasting away in the countryside. "I think she believed it would be charming and romantic," Craigie says. "A lovely house in the country and she would look lovely there. But then she realizes that it's just terribly boring. There's nothing going on, so she has to create something. She likes little intrigues. The whole family does."

A whole family that likes little intrigues? Who wouldn't want to spend the weekend with them, confined within the walls of their country manse, playing along with the Blisses' idea of entertainment?

Craigie sums up the harrowing dimensions of what you'd be letting yourself in for if you accepted such an invitation. "In the play, the Blisses have all invited people down. All these house party games and things — that was a whole lifestyle that went on at that time. They'd invite people to their homes, and the people who came were as much the entertainment as anything and also, the guests were an audience for people like the Blisses. Judith desperately needs an audience."

As wildly over the top as the Bliss family appears to be, Coward's inspiration for these characters drew upon his own experience of a theatrical family, the Taylors, whom he'd met in New York. We can imagine Coward in their company, giddy as a gold miner recognizing that glint of precious material before him. Which begs the question — is there no one like the Bliss family in Britain? Did they have to be imported?

"I don't think Coward had to go there at all," she says, laughing. "Especially as a young man, which he was at the time, he met a whole load of very particular, quite extreme characters. But at the time he met this particular actress, Laurette Taylor. He was so taken with her eccentricity and her wit. But he certainly had plenty of other examples around him in England."

Whatever their antecedents, the Bliss family function like a force of nature: they make conspicuous mischief look natural. They charm, befuddle, and dissect their guests without breaking a sweat. Craigie points out that this was very much a trend of the times they lived in, one which Coward himself would have been part of. Being witty, weighing in with a clever throwaway line, swatting back with just the right rejoinder, all these must appear to be effortless. You would never let on that it took some doing to achieve those artfully careless effects. The work was something you hid.

"Work was [considered] something vulgar," Craigie explains. "So you made it look like it was easy for you. Coward polished his wit. They all polished what they were going to say in private, so they'd be ready for it in public." And being dazzling in public is, in fact, the "unique value proposition" of the Bliss brand. Inventive, creative and fun, they can also be ever so slightly cruel. But even that hint of cruelty may be inadvertent: simply clueless, not calculated. "They don't really think about others. They think people should be more robust: it's only a game as far as the family are concerned and others should get over it."

Craigie contends that although the family is self-involved to the point of caricature — Hay Fever is a farce, after all — the Blisses have redeeming qualities, too. "They are all very bright, and they really engage in everything that's going on. They have a huge life force that's very attractive, too. They don't just wait for things to happen. Despite everything, I think they are a fantastic family unit, and nothing will break them up, that marriage and those children."

As a play, Hay Fever relies on a talented cast to communicate those solid family underpinnings because, as Coward himself noted, "Hay Fever is far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform. To begin with, it has no plot at all, and remarkably little action. Its general effectiveness therefore depends upon expert technique from each and every member of the cast."

Like bottled champagne once the cork has zinged away, start to finish, Hay Fever is in a race to stay bubbly and spirited. Craigie explains that for the actors the challenge of maintaining that sparkle requires a high level of technical proficiency. "You need a huge amount of energy and stamina and concentration. It's exhausting to do, really. Judith, once she's on, she's on. There's an energy about the play that can't become too frantic. You can't let anything drop, because it is like a ball of fluff; it's not profound. It is pure pleasure. In rehearsal, you're trying to get your head around it all. This scene happens, then that scene happens. And no plot to carry it on. It's all about language and wit and creating drama."

Craigie can't keep the affection out of her voice when she says that Hay Fever is a ball of fluff. She notes, "The play has resonances in our own day — it doesn't matter that these people are very far away from us. There are things that ring true."

Perhaps some of what rings true is demonstrated by the Bliss family's contemporary counterparts: the TV mischief makers we love to gawk at. It's just that pitting the current crowd against the residents of chez Bliss is not a fair fight. The old advice holds: You gotta punch your weight. Which means that the Real Housewives, Snooki and the Jersey Shore crew, the Kardashians, and the rest of their lightweight ilk really need to hit the intellectual gym.

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