The cast of Design For Living | Playhouse

At what stage is a classic piece of theatre, or a playwright, ripe for parody? Gilbert and Sullivan had their works in copyright for a hundred years so that no liberties could be taken either with the text or the production; Shakespeare, of course, is fair game for any theatre company, as La Boite’s next radical production of Romeo and Juliet will prove.

But where does Noel Coward, whose plays are only about 80 years old, fit into this theory?  Is it all right to spell out the subtleties of the subtext, add gratuitous cross-dressing, and camp the whole play up?

Plenty of people like this way of dealing with the classics, and Wesley Enoch’s production of Coward’s early play, Design for Living, has had a rapturous reception in some quarters. Certainly it has a stellar cast, with actors like Carol Burns, Jason Klarwein, Kellie Lazarus, Andrea Moor and Bryan Proberts. There are welcome surprises, too, like a welcome return from veteran actor Trevor Stuart, who steals the show with his baffled Ernest, the older man caught in the trap laid by the younger menage a trios of Otto (Klarwein), Gilda (Lazarus) and Leo (Tama Matheson, a fine young actor making his long overdue debut on Queensland’s main stage).

But there are some strange castings and directorial decisions. Fez Faanana appears as a hideous cross-dressed caricature of a judgemental housemaid, and later as an unnecessarily camp butler, both performances dragging the play down to music-hall level. And why cast the admirable Andrea Moore as a gross male entrepreneur in a fat suit that doesn’t even fit, and translate her into a character almost as gross as Barry Humphreys’ Sir Les Patterson?  These are insensitive touches in what is, after all, a very sophisticated play.

And that’s my problem with this production. It leaves nothing to the imagination, and fails to acknowledge the subtle genius of Coward’s script. He was, after all, writing in a period when unmarried liaisons and especially homosexual relationships were forbidden, although of course they occurred, but he had an adoring and intelligent public whose delight was to read between the lines and work out the wicked truth of his implications. That’s one of the joys of seeing a Coward play, and here we are denied this pleasure, as it’s all spelled out for us.

And I was worried about the costumes, too. They just weren’t stylish enough for the characters (except for Carol Burns’s magnificent evening gown in the third act). And often they just didn’t fit, especially the men’s suits, which I assume were made to measure.

Another nit-picking comment about the costumes, too, which is relevant in this context: the hand-knitted sleeveless pullover, a very stylish garment of its time, and which my grandfather used to wear with pride on the rare occasions he appeared in his shirtsleeves, here looked as if it had been bought from St Vinnies, so overwashed and felted it was. There must be hundreds of elderly ladies in Brisbane who could have knitted them a far classier garment if they’d given them the  wool.

For me, this production didn’t work at all. By overplaying the subtle sexual innuendoes in the text, and bypassing the serious moral dilemma that the play poses, the play has become over-the-top farce, and loses much of the witty humour that is Coward’s hallmark.

As one of Coward’s earlier plays, it’s rather stodgy in its exposition anyway, but this heavy-handed treatment does it a disservice. O blithe spirit, where hast thou fled?

The details: Design For Living is at the Playhouse, QPAC until November 10. Tickets on the venue website.