November 01, 1991

Farce Forward


A Flea in her Ear

by Georges Feydeau

State Theatre Company


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

In Feydeau it only needs one person to get a bee in his bonnet or a flea in her ear and it’s all va from then on. Like Labiche and Courteline, Feydeau’s farce is extra-marital, extra-mural and distinctly extra-curricular. But as with Keats’s mad pursuit and maidens loth, things are in a fairly permanent state of interruptus and the delinquent bourgeois, demented by mistaken identity, death threats and their own miserable perfidy, are always only too relieved to get back home to the Louis Quinze recliner and the respectability of the family maison.

It is commonly said that French comedy of the Third Republic is not about anything. In fact it’s about a great deal- the rights of male infidelity, the coquettry of marriage and the  universal entitlement to roger the servants. They are also proof that if you try any of these shenanigans in a room with less than four doors you’re dead, or worse – on page one of the News of Le Monde. The frisson in these farces is  the terror of scandal in a society so repressed it is bulging out its camisole.

At least it used to be. As late as the mid-Sixties when the  youngish John Mortimer translated Feydeau’s plays- including A Flea in Her Ear- the Profumo case reminded the British upper middle class that discretion was by far the better part of a good spanking. But even by then, sixty years had not been kind to a French play of its own  time and place. Now, another quarter century has probably done it in. Especially when you remember that in 1978, farce had been reinvented and could be seen alive and kicking in a hotel in Torquay.

It is the very excellence of much of the State Theatre Company production of A Flea in Her Ear  that signals the problems of presenting Feydeau these days. Director George Ogilvie and designer Kristian Fredrikson have chosen to preserve the period with elegant costume and creamy decor so that it remains hermetically sealed, the fourth wall very definitely double-glazed. There is little to trouble our time and space and we focus curiously, but coolly, on the  technique.

Of which there is much. The set-up is artfully established. Raymonde Chandebise -she’s the one with the metaphorical flea- suspecting  her husband Victor Emmanuel of infidelity, fakes up a letter- with a little calligraphic help from her friend Lucienne- to entice him to the Hotel Coq d’Or for a rendezvous. Her plan to confront him there is exponentially complicated by the fact that others in the household have arranged assignations at the same hotel and, to complete the mayhem, the hall porter, an unfortunate named Poche, bears an uncanny resemblance to Victor Emmanuel Chandebise. It’s the kind of plot that ought to require two yards of graph paper to construct although Feydeau is said to have concocted it and others like it in a single draft.

This extraordinary complexity of events is lucidly established – in the first instance by Jane Harders and Carmel McGlone as Raymonde and Lucienne and then carried forward hilariously by Paul Blackwell as Camille the nephew, John Wood as Dr Finache , Edwin Hodgeman’s Tournel and John Gaden as Chandebise. It is often said of Feydeau that the action is improbable but the actors must not be. In this respect John Wood’s understatement is not only what the doctor ordered but the play as a whole.

It is not surprising that some directors have rehearsed Feydeau with a metronome, ruthlessly reducing individual business to a minimum. For this reason while John Gaden serves the play splendidly as Chandebise, his Poche is too broadly mannered- not only to keep the overall flow nimble but to register how menacingly close to unhinged these people become when their neat, sly lives get out of control.

For the same reasons, Tony Mack’s homicidal Carlos Homenides de Histangua and Patrick Frost’s Feraillon- clever portraits though they are- need shaving down a little. The casting is strong- Heather Bolton as Antoinette, Ian Boyce as Plucheux, Caroline Mignone thriftily comic as Eugenie and Maurie Annese, increasing in confidence this season, as Schwarz- but director George Ogilvie has not brought the work together in sharp focus. The effect is more burlesque than farce such that Act III, while still brisk, loses much of our interest.

A Flea in Her Ear is accomplished work but oddly out of reach. It is a polished exhibit from the comedy museum. In contrast, the current re-runs of Fawlty Towers with their mistaken identities, petty intrigues and obsessive regard for

status and respectability, remind us that farce is far from being a dead form. Although we despise Basil, when he struggles to  maintain his tenuous grasp on a world which operates with a terrible prior knowledge, we know better than to laugh too loud. That is also what Feydeau did for his audience but on the evidence of State’s production it is uncertain  whether he can still farce forward to us now.

The Adelaide Review, No.94, November, 1991, p.36.

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