Russ Hunt's Reviews

Easy Virtue
by Noel Coward

The Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, June 2000

When you consider a brilliant play like Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, it's worth remembering that it comes out of a context. Not just a literary one. Sure, I've told my students for years that Wilde represents the revival of a tradition of Comedy of Manners that had been moribund for a century, and couldn't have written his play unless Congreve and Farquhar and Etherege and Sheridan had written theirs. But it's even more important that it comes out of an active culture of theatre -- actors, directors, companies, writers, audience expectations, all part of the world the playwright is living in. Much of the brilliant surface of Wilde's play comes directly out of the attempts at creating brilliant, witty surface by other writers of the time, and the theatre companies who were active who thought this sort of thing worth doing (one of them, of course, was George Bernard Shaw). One of the central practitioners of that form -- he didn't influence Wilde, of course, since he wasn't born till the dawn of the 20th century, when Wilde was in his forties -- was Noel Coward. Though Coward never escaped the gravitational pull of the turn of the century comedy of manners, and never utterly transcended it the way Wilde (and perhaps Shaw) did, he did produce examples of the form so consummately skilful that they're regularly produced even now.

On the evidence of this season's Shaw Festival production, Easy Virtue is awfully close to that kind of play. It's not as delicate, as gossamer-subtle as Wilde's masterpiece, of course, or as deeply thought through as Shaw's plays. In fact, it's actually a kind of World Wrestling Federation version of comedy of manners. But here -- and especially with Goldie Semple as the verbal kickboxing action hero of oral conflict, it's not only funny, and painfully effective as satire, it's also, in the end, moving (and I hadn't expected that).

I was also unprepared for the elaborate, lavish, brilliantly decorated set. I'm irritated at audiences that applaud the set when the curtain goes up (what did you come here for, I ask myself), but I understood perfectly well why one might applaud this one. From the grand staircase swooping down from the bedrooms to our left, to the rank of gracefully curtained French doors opening onto the garden, William Schmuck's brilliant rendition of Colonel Whittaker's country estate is a wonderfully effective, and useful, setting for this exploding jewel of a play.

The explosion itself is simple to describe. John, the family's only son, is returning from France with his new wife, an older woman with, we and his family suspect -- and discover -- "a past." His family (except, perhaps, his father) represent a caricature of English upper-middle class "country life" -- xenophobic, self-centred, sanctimonious and utterly unaware that their rigorous and narrow conception of "virtue" might not rule everywhere in the world. The marriage is, of course, a catastrophe, as the family rejects the transplanted Larita with remarkable finality.

I'm not sure Coward would have pictured the family as quite as hyperactive and frenetic as they are portrayed by director Christopher Newton, but I found the scurrying and leaping and just barely controlled hysteria of the Whittaker women amusing and effective, though occasionally the screech of Kelli Fox's Marian sounded rather like John Cleese or Terry Jones in drag. Indeed, one could describe the Whittaker women as a cross between Monty Python's "pepperpots" and an upper middle class Hyacinth, of Keeping Up Appearances. Patricia Hamilton's Mrs. Whittaker gives the word "harridan" a whole new level of meaning, and Kelli Fox, striding about the stage with her knees akimbo makes "horsey" an unexpectedly full description of the kind of incipient British old maid who is most assuredly not going to grow up to be Maggie Smith. And Fiona Byrne, as the young sister Hilda, enters with a brace of overcaffeinated Corgies and shames them with her own energy, screaming in enthusiasm and horror and racing around the stage like a Riverdance performer on speed.

Their brother John (Ben Carlson), who arrives home with the exotic flower Larita on his arm, expecting to transplant her into this English landscape of durable Marigolds and energetic Hyacinths, simply doesn't get it, never understands what wrong, and, like the stick he is, spends the rest of the play playing tennis and apologizing endlessly and uncomprehendingly for the fact that Larita doesn't seem able to fit in. Colonel Whittaker, his father, held in utter contempt by wife and daughters for his lack of interest in their domestic tempests and their moral indignations, it turns out, is one of the few people who have any idea what Larita's about, and as played warmly and avuncularly by David Schurmann is one of the perhaps three sympathetic characters on stage. Oh, yes, and there's also Charles Burleigh (Patrick R. Brown) introduced fairly clumsily by Coward as a stand-in for himself -- the worldly, clever, articulate sophisticate who really does understand Larita, and who's able to engage in the sort of clever repartee that dramatizes for us what's missing in this "No Sex, Please, We're British" world.

What makes the play such a WWF style comedy of manners is the tag-team match of Act II, in which Larita faces down, one at a time, the family's women. Isolated, ignored, patronized and snubbed, she finally realizes that John will never get it, and that she's facing a lifetime of incomprehension, suspicion, alienation and contempt. And, just as in that moment in the ring when the good guy shakes his head and snaps back to life, when Rocky goes deep to find the strength, Larita decides it's all over, and hits back with a sudden explosion of verbal violence that has every member of the audience guiltily rooting for her to slug them one more time (we abjure violence, but you can only push Dirty Harry so far).

It's a lovely, satisfying third act. Larita gets to humiliate the Whittaker women at their much planned garden party, have a last conversation with Burleigh (he understands, as do we) and with John (who, we see, still doesn't get it). And we leave the theatre just mildly guilty at revelling in the bloodshed, but knowing that the good guys won, the bad guys were defeated (though they still don't know it, and will be just as ready to take on the next hero), and the innocent bystanders (John, the Colonel, the sympathetic Sarah Hurst (Glynis Ranney), who, it appears, will break John's fall), will all be okay.

The best thing about the production, though, is the irony of the festival's site. Niagara-on-the-Lake, on the evidence of a quick walking tour, must be one of Canada's strongest bastions of just the kind of gentility run amok that Noel Coward is flailing away at in this play. You can't make these people understand, he screams at us, that there's something more important than the gardens, the neighbours, the gentility, the Volvo and the evening at the theatre where the tickets are $75, the lawns are impeccably groomed, and the wines on the members' veranda are the best vintages.

To discuss or comment on this review, send email to
Back to main list of reviews
Back to Russ Hunt's Web site