A NOEL COWARD play at the Gate Theatre: so far, so normal. The Gate has had successful runs of Present Laughter, Hay Fever and Private Lives in the last few years. Yet, fans of Coward’s dry wit and glamour might be in for a surprise with the latest revival on Dublin’s north side.
Certainly, The Vortex shares many of the expected Coward traits: it’s set in an upper-class milieu, and you will see characters quipping in dressing gowns. But there are depths here that go beyond Coward’s self-described “talent to amuse”.
The play centres on the dysfunctional relationship between Nicky Lancaster and his overbearing mother Florence. She is a self-obsessed former beauty. He is a confused young man — addicted to cocaine, a talented pianist and possibly homosexual.
The play begins as Nicky returns home from Paris with an unlikely fiancée. Through barbed exchanges and poisonous wit, the action proceeds to a final mother-son confrontation that owes much to Hamlet and Gertrude’s closet scene.
A “darker Coward” is how director Annabelle Comyn describes The Vortex. It’s what attracted her to it several years ago, when she workshopped the piece. “It upturned my own expectations of Coward, so that interested me initially,” she says. “I thought some of the themes of co-dependence between the mother and the son were very interesting: that kind of obsessive love, that almost violent love, was at the heart of it. The play is about addiction, but also about obsolescence, people being afraid of being obsolete. And. looking back to that workshop, without quite knowing it at the time, I think I was terrified of becoming obsolete as a director. Funding had stopped, I had no work… so in a way it was apt.”
Churchill’s aside is an example of the precariousness of her profession — even for a “success” like her. She directed Major Barbara at the Abbey last summer, and in 2012 she won an Irish Theatre Award for her production of Tom Murphy’s The House. Before that, she had established her reputation with her Hatch Theatre Company. Hatch made a mark with her outward-looking choices, and Comyn took that aesthetic to the Abbey’s Peacock stage with brilliant versions of Caryl Churchill’s A Number and Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange.
For now, Comyn’s work has a home is the Gate, where, in a high-ceilinged reception room looking out over Cavendish Row, she discusses the character of Nicky Lancaster and the theme of aging as dealt with in The Vortex.
“He was old before his time,” she says. “But people of that generation grew up sooner anyway. He was living an independent life from quite a young age — touring around Britain with shows from the age of 12 or 13. But it is a very mature play from such a writer.”
“A study of rottenness” was the verdict of the Times reviewer in 1924, who approved of Coward’s satirical impulses. With its simmering sexuality and addiction, the play was a sensation. But what does it hold for the modern audience?
Comyn describes what she sees as the universal in the play: “The Vortex is really about refusing to face your feelings of worthlessness. It’s the lie you keep living to tell yourself you could have been great or you could still be great. Actually, when you face yourself, you have to realise, I never will be if I carry on the way I am. The truth of it is quite terrifying.”
It’s not just pianists who avoid these troubling self-assessments. So, don’t expect an easy-going evening of Coward this time.