'A Flea In Her Ear', a French farce written by George Feydeau in 1900, comedy is based mostly on characters and dialogue, while farce relies on plot and physical action. Farce is said to be much more difficult to write and perform than comedy, and relies on split second timing. Says programme-article writer John Morrison:
“Surrounded by slamming doors, plates of sardines and multiple burglars...I realised that performing farce demands a split-second precision that makes every other form of drama seem a piece of cake.”
I took myself off to The Old Vic Theatre just in time to catch the second-last performance of this farce – and luckily I did, because it was extremely funny, and brilliantly performed. Friends had recommended it to me, and I should have listened to them sooner.
Sitting at his permanent table reserved at Maxim’s restaurant was the playwright Georges Feydeau, observing Parisian society with a satiric eye, especially its sexual and matrimonial activities, its foibles and its extravagances.
Feydeau’s play ‘La puce à l’oreille’ (‘A Flea in her Ear’) didn’t make it to Britain until 1917, and only then in a highly sanitised version. Feydeau’s house of ill repute became The Blue Cat Tea Rooms, and the unfortunate impotence of the lead character Chandebise was changed to a long list of other ailments, including pimples and rheumatism. Then in 1965 the wonderful John Mortimer (of ‘Rumpole Of The Bailey’ fame) produced a more faithful translation – the one performed at The Old Vic – and it was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, aka the British censors. As the programme notes put it, in 1965 “censorship was already on its last legs, but still vigilant.” However, the Mortimer translation passed the test – the “No Sex Please, We’re British” policy was dead and buried.
Feydeau is known as a bold and precise playwright, and his influence is said to extend to ‘Fawlty Towers’, where Sybil Fawlty is a classic example of the person who must be prevented from seeing what is really happening, a character which is a staple of good farce. In my opinion, anything which inspired ‘Fawlty Towers’ can only be good.
Watch the trailer...
|Histangua gets threatening|
The first half ended with an enormous contretemps in the ill-famed Hotel Coq d’Or, half-dressed people running everywhere, Histangua waving his revolver, and everyone (plus some extras) on stage simultaneously. It was wild, I tell you, wild. The shorter second half (if you’ll excuse the literal incorrectness of that phrase) resolved all the plot lines and loose ends at a rapid pace. You had to keep up. I’ve never known a plot to move so quickly and with such precision. It was very clever indeed, and very funny. Laugh-out-loud funny, which is a blessing not to be lightly dismissed.
As some in the cast described it: "it's like getting on an express train"; "like an episode of Benny Hill drawn by Salvador Dali"; '"you just have to hold your nose and jump in."
Thank goodness I caught it in time.
The building was badly bombed in the Blitz, causing the establishment of a temporary home known as The New Vic. The theatre re-opened in 1950 and went on to boast many more big name players: Richard Burton, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith. This company (very illustrious) seems to have formed the nucleus of the National Theatre, which moved off to its home in South Bank in 1976. The poor Old Vic then led an itinerant life, and was eventually bought in 1982 by a Canadian businessman who restored its facade to its former glory based on an 1830s engraving, and the auditorium using 1871 designs. All’s well until the Canadians put the theatre on the market in 1998, and there are suggestions to turn it into a themed pub, a bingo hall or a lap-dancing club. *Cue wide-spread outrage and protests* A Trust is set up to buy and operate the theatre in 2000 --- and here we are today. In 2003 Kevin Spacey was appointed first Artistic Director of The Old Vic Theatre Company . He’s coming onstage to play Richard III in June – I have my ticket.