In times of rancour, conflict and division, people heading out to the theatre sometimes just want a rollicking good night out. What better way to ignore the horrors on the news and madness in the papers than a comic caper about rich people, their never-ending deceit, and a mischievous ghost raised by accident during a séance?
Playwright Noel Coward believed that this might well be what the people wanted, which is why he penned Blithe Spirit in 1941, with World War II raging across Europe. And theatre director Gemma Fairlie is well aware that in the era of Brexit and Trump and far-right populism, audiences are just as keen to sidestep reality when the lights go down. “Right now we need entertainment, and as artists we can provide a little bit of escapism,” admits Gemma. “When the news is dreadful all the time and we’re so afraid of what might happen in the future, I think we just need two or three hours out of that to laugh at someone else’s misfortune. And that’s what Coward provides.”
Blithe Spirit revolves around an unlikely ménage à trois, with celebrated yet vain novelist Charles Condomine inviting a local medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance for some guests at his house; his plan is not to raise the dead but simply as research for his next book. Inadvertently, the spectre of his first wife, Elvira, is indeed summoned, causing merry hell in the house, much to the chagrin of Ruth, Charles’ second wife.
“These are really unlikeable characters,” Gemma adds with a chortle. “They are very privileged and capable but wasting their lives. And it’s nice to see them torturing each other and getting their comeuppance. I’ve seen these people on Grand Designs, I know who they are, and watching them gave me the idea for this. They have money and fantastical ideas but no idea how to put things into practice, and you sort of want them to fail; it’s real schadenfreude.”
The very busy Gemma Fairlie is also set to direct Henry V at the Shakespeare Rose Theatre in York but when we speak is looking forward to getting stuck into rehearsals for Blithe Spirit. “I know that when I’m back in the mountains, I’m in the middle of Blithe which is ironic considering what an urban play it is. I’ve kept all of Coward’s language in but I’ve updated it to a far more recognisable place. If you set a Coward play in the time that it was originally written, people can sometimes switch off. I really want people to see that these are such wonderful archetypes and they continue throughout the ages, they’re not just stuck in that time period.”
Blithe Spirit runs at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from June 6 to September 28.