By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“My mind is a mass of corruption,” Noel Coward told the Evening Standard in 1925.
“England’s solid-gold jazz baby,” as his biographer John Lahr described him, was responding to the selection of epithets dusted off by the press for a light, bright Coward comedy Fallen Angels. Among them? “Amoral, disgusting, vulgar, and an insult to British womanhood!” as the playwright listed gaily in the preface to the published play — and capital for the box office.
“The realization that I am hopelessly depraved, vicious, and decadent has for two days ruined my morning beaker of opium,” he added.
Those of you who are delicate sensibility may want to stop reading immediately. Shocking but true! Fallen Angels is the very play that Bright Young Things have chosen to open the Varscona Theatre Ensemble season Thursday.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. After all, Fallen Angels is about about the two married ladies of the title, upper-crust best friends who get smashed together under the stress of anticipating the arrival of a French lover they’d once shared. “Soused sluts!” roared the Daily Express.
It was, therefore, with a certain moral trepidation that I ventured to the Varscona last week to meet up with the actors, artistic directors both and old friends, who are playing Julia and Jane in the production by Bright Young Things, a five-year-old indie company devoted to the vintage offerings of the last century.
It was barely noon. And while Belinda Cornish, artistic director of Bright Young Things, and Vanessa Sabourin, co-artistic director of Azimuth and The Maggie Tree, weren’t drinking champagne they might as well have been. They were smiling. And laughing. A lot. And when director Marianne Copithorne arrived later, they laughed some more. Suspicious at that time of day, I thought. Is theatre meant to be … fun?
When Fallen Angels premiered in 1925, the 25-year-old playwright, who’d written it whilst appearing in a revue called London Calling!, had three plays simultaneously running in the West End. But since that heady time, has not been in the inner circle of Coward’s most produced plays, Private Lives or Hay Fever. Which is part of the allure for Bright Young Things. After all, the company made its debut five years ago with Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea — who does Rattigan on this side of the pond? And the company archive has included such unexpected offerings as Harold Pinter’s The Lover, Coward’s We Were Dancing (part of Tonight at 8:30), Sartre’s No Exit, and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.
“I do like to find things that aren’t done consistently,” says Cornish. “More than just the pathways that get accessed all the time,” adds Sabourin.
And there’s this: “I like how female-driven Fallen Angels is. And in such a joyous way,” says Cornish, musing on the way the wives will gain the upper hand over their complacent husbands. “I gravitate to that kind of play…. And I really enjoy the way the characters speak to each other in Coward, veiled elegance with a certain bite. And they do it with such style. And it’s so funny!”
“The characters lean into the cartoon at times, but it’s strongly based on reality,” Cornish adds. Sabourin concurs. “They expand into something larger than life, but they’re based on something very truthful!”
“The preposterousness of the English upper class trying frantically to maintain social veneer while their little dog-feet are paddling frantically below the surface trying to make the terrible thing happening to them go away!” London-born Cornish beams. “So delicious!” Sabourin giggles.
After five years of happy marriage, well-off Julia (Cornish) and Jane (Sabourin) are, well, bored with contentment. “They have to create their own drama,” says Sabourin of the events by which the friends get themselves into a tangle of ambivalence and competition about the arrival of the exotic French lover from both their pasts. “They have literally nothing to do,” says Cornish. “Happiness is dull. Or rather, the comfortable is dull.” As Sabourin puts it, “comfort comes with things that are known…. But we’re curious beings. And the unknown makes them feel alive, feel that they have something to do.”
“They’re intelligent, educated people who aren’t doing anything useful with it,” says Cornish. “The less you do, the higher the status….”
Cornish and Sabourin concede that since the central conflict is about a man, with peripheral discussions of complacent husbands who golf, Fallen Angels would flunk the Bechdel test. But the man “is just a catalyst,” argues Cornish. “The central relationship is about the friendship.” And the more champagne that gets consumed, the more grievances get aired.
It turns out that Cornish and Sabourin go back, as actors together. “WAY back!” they declare in unison. They remember productions like the slice-of-life revue Shakers and the vampire play Blood Sympathy. They remember terrible shows they were in together in the ’90s, and really good shows, like last summer’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival pairing of A Comedy of Errors and Hamlet. The range is considerable. But then so is the multi-talent arsenal in Bright Young Things. Sabourin is a director and theatre deviser. Cornish is a playwright (Category E, Little Elephants) and Die-Nasty improv star.
After Fallen Angels, Sabourin with her Azimuth partner Kristi Hansen will curate the Expanse Movement Festival for the Chinook Series in February. Later she’ll star in this season’s potentially most disturbing and controversial play, 19 Weeks (about a late-term abortion) in an Azimuth/Northern Light Theatre co-production that’s about as far from Fallen Angels as theatre can go. Freewill artistic director Copithorne has been rehearsing two high-contrast offerings in divided days: What A Young Wife Ought To Know now running at Theatre Network (a tragic ‘20s love story about lack of access to birth control) and the giddy Fallen Angels.
Talk turns to booze. Fallen Angels is full of it, and the scandal of Coward’s day was that it was consumed by respectable ladies. In the half hour or so in which Julia and Jane move from martinis to champagne to Benedictine, it’s harder and harder for them to maintain decorous behavior. “Jane loses it and gets abusive; Julia gets more and more dignified,” says Cornish. Both actors find that calibrated dynamic hilarious.
Drunk acting is a challenge; there’s a considerable temptation to ham it up outrageously. But according to their cast-mate Mark Meer (who’s married to Cornish), the key in acting drunk is “to try really hard to not seem drunk, to do your very best to seem sober.” Director Copithorne agrees. “It’s pronouncing everything very carefully.”
You’ll have your chance to practice if you see the show next week on “Champagne Wednesday,” when the performance comes with complementary bubbles and snacks.
Varscona Theatre Ensemble
Theatre: Bright Young Things
Written by: Noel Coward
Directed by: Marianne Copithorne
Starring: Belinda Cornish, Vanessa Sabourin, Rachel Bowron, Mark Meer, Nathan Cuckow, John Ullyatt
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Dec. 1