The list of those playing Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s 1941 comedy is long and illustrious. It includes Margaret Rutherford, Marcia Warren and Angela Lansbury, who was last to play the role in the West End six years ago. Judi Dench’s movie version will be released in May.
Doubtless each of these interpretations of the eccentric role has contributed to the iconic status of the role. Yet apart from Rutherford’s, which was the first, has there ever been an Arcati as original as that performed by Jennifer Saunders in Richard Eyre’s production, first seen at the Theatre Royal, Bath?
To identify the key to Saunders’ reinvention of the medium, who accidentally summons the spirit of novelist Charles Condomine’s dead first wife into his home, where he now lives with his second, it is necessary to examine the parts that combine to make an unforgettable whole.
Instead of coiffured and bejewelled grandeur, usually combined with an artsy dowager air, Saunders enters Colombine’s gabled country pile, with its packed bookshelves reaching all the way to the rafters (design by Anthony Ward), as the frumpiest frump imaginable.
Her greasy, grey hair has not seen a dresser in its entire life. Her feet are shod with pragmatic ankle boots topped by wooly socks, and when she prances around the stage in an exotic ghoul-summoning dance it is not poltergeists that appear but pantaloons beneath her tweed skirt.
More importantly, she is a woman of complete integrity. Unlike previous Arcatis, the offence she takes at her hosts’ scepticism does not reflect a fear of being found out as a fraud, but rather resentment that anyone could possibly think she would knowingly deceive. Personal hygiene, one imagines, is not a priority.
But it is the caterpillar eyebrows that crown this performance. To sum up, imagine if Mark Rylance were to step into the role with his trademark loose canon way with dialogue that can sound “off-script” whether it is or isn’t.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Charles embodies the arrogant chauvinism of his time and class (upper of course, this being Coward). Also excellent are Lisa Dillon and Emma Naomi as Ruth and Elvira, Condomine’s contrasting wives.
Their differences could not be starker, with Ruth being a pragmatic type while Elvira is playful, seductive and dead.
And as alive as it ever was is Coward’s vicious view of marriage – a callous undermining of the notion of lifelong union.
Saunders’ new version notwithstanding, Blithe Spirit remains the most un-rom of coms.