Left – Leon Ford. Cover – Sean O’Shea and Tim Walter. Photos – Brett Boardman
Although you might think it would be almost lowest-common-denominator humour, a good French farce can be something of an acquired taste for anyone unfamiliar with the tropes, or likely to find its stylised theatrical conventions intolerably silly or frivolous. This is most certainly not highbrow entertainment for anyone wont to take themselves too seriously, but that is not to say that this is dumb humour, nor to imply that it is easy to do, let alone do well. And this is farce done very, very well indeed.
In fact, this kind of show is all about meticulous precision, from the scripting and direction to the finely-tuned performances. A play like this, despite its artful lightness of touch, is actually very complex. While the characters may be broad archetypes, they serve a highly intricate, plot-driven narrative that has to appear effortlessly slick and comprehensible whilst also teetering hilariously into apparently abject chaos. A good French farce ticks away in perfect order like a finely crafted Swiss watch… even if it may seem by the halfway mark like someone threw this watch down a flight of stars and then started to bludgeon it with a sledgehammer.
To recount the plot of Georges Feydeau’s classic A Flea in Her Ear in much detail is both reductive and would give away some of the best gags – after all, they do say that to explain a joke is to murder it. But as with most farces we are concerned here with matters of infidelity, class, and many, many misunderstandings. All the tricks are on display here, from mistaken identity, misheard phrases and missed rendezvous, to naughty maids, drunk bellhops and enraged, pistol-brandishing cuckolds. Added to all the expected features of a farce is also a rather delicious metatheatrical sense of humour, with a rather droll running gag whereby the characters commiserate with each other over the tedium of having recently seen a rather similar play. In all these regards Andrew Upton’s new adaptation is excellent, although his use of the modern idiom does at times seem a tad off-kilter in this otherwise relatively traditional period costume piece. Yet that seems like a churlish nit-pick for such a relentlessly entertaining show.
Of course things really get cooking in the best tradition of the genre once the characters start frantically running around the stage like chickens sans heads, back and forth through multiple doors, hiding behind furniture, tripping and trampling over each other in increasingly outrageous feats of choreography. It’s a perfect marriage of physical and verbal humour, and this open-door-close-door mode of farce absolutely sinks or swims on the aforementioned precision of its execution.
Once the frantic madness of these outrageous characters’ outlandish capers kicks into overdrive, it is thoroughly astonishing to see the cast work together like a well-oiled machine, especially considering some of the character doubling and hyper-rapid costume changes that have to occur backstage. Often this takes place whist actors are dashing to disappear through one door only to then frequently reappear at another a mere instant later, now playing someone else.
If this sort of thing is not your cup of tea, then no amount of singing its praises is likely to convince you. Or, for that matter, if you are easily offended by the politically incorrect – so if jokes mercilessly mocking speech impediments, transvestism, erectile dysfunction or sadomasochistic sex are likely to offend your sensibilities, be warned. But if you enjoy the theatrical mode of high-octane farce, this production brilliantly delivers it at the highest standard.
In addition to their already-lauded teamwork in carrying off the play’s requisite split-second timing, this tremendous cast is also hilariously funny down to the smallest role, with many of them doubling up as more than one (variably-)identical character. While there is not a weak link in the cast, special praise must go to Harry Greenwood as Camille, the slurring, cleft-palated nephew, the always redoubtable Sean O’Shea as the womanising Doctor Baptiste, and Harriet Dyer, who hilariously seems to channel the excruciating vanity and volcanic fury of Miss Piggy as Raymonde Chandebise, the frustrated wife who gets the story rolling by instigating a scheme to entrap her husband over mistakenly suspected infidelity.
Clearly though, the two shining stars of the production are David Woods as Victor Emmanuel, the falsely-impugned husband and his alcoholic porter doppelgänger Poche, and Justin Smith as August the seedy, abusive hotel proprietor, as well as Carlos the enraged gun-wielding Spaniard, in the kind of ethnic stereotype you could only get away with these days in something as patently absurd as this delightfully contrived nonsense. Although not the only members of the cast to play dual roles (in fact Woods trebles-up as a barely-seen outrageous sexual degenerate staying at the hotel), these chaps do so to the greatest effect, and each of the characters they play absolutely hog the limelight in any scene they are in. Their comic timing is impeccable, and it is almost impossible to overstate how funny they are.
Indeed, this whole production is an exercise in escalating mirth, whereby the action and characters become more and more outlandish and frenetic to the point where the play becomes a teetering rollercoaster of utter hilarity. The opening night audience was just about falling out of their seats in gut-busting peals of cackling laughter – if the Drama Theatre had aisles, they would have been rolling in them. To be amidst a crowd in such a mounting apoplexy of hysterics was a true joy, and a testament to the quality of this fine show.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
A Flea in Her Ear
by Georges Feydeau | adaptation Andrew Upton
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 31 October – 17 December 2016
Tickets: $104 – $78
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au