Director: Matthew Dunster
Writer: W Somerset Maugham
Reviewer: Lettie Mckie
The decision to revive a forgotten play is often fraught with difficulty and the pressures involved have both made and broken many a career. The popularity of playwrights ebb and flow with the tide of fashion and it is only the bravest of directors who break out against the accepted critical opinions of the season.
Of course, this risk taking is what good dramatic programming is all about, balancing ‘safe’ options with unusual choices that push boundaries or make audiences reconsider widely held opinions. Often revivals have unprecedented success; when English Touring Theatre (ETT) revived a Terence Rattigan play several years ago, many people thought they were mad. Now Rattigan is so popular that even David Hare has written a play inspired by his work.
But if ETT were hoping to pull off a similar coup with their production of W Somerset Maugham’s The Sacred Flame, they are likely to be disappointed. Last staged in 1967 the premise of this whodunit-style psychological drama was initially promising but unfortunately, in reality, the play was excruciatingly dull. Maurice Tabret (Jamie de Courcey) is an invalid, paralysed in a car accident and now bed-bound and impotent, but married to the beautiful young Stella (Beatriz Romilly) whom he loves fiercely. Stella, wracked with guilt, has embarked upon an affair with Maurice’s brother Colin Trabet (David Ricardo-Pearce) whose baby, the play reveals, she is now carrying. Half way through the first act Maurice dies and his loyal, manically self-righteous nurse Wayland (Sarah Churm), points the finger accusingly at the shamefaced couple. The rest of the play deals with the various suspects for Maurice’s death in turn.
The director Matthew Dunster explains in the programme notes that ‘Maugham uses the conventions of the whodunit to make some breath- takingly contemporary points about love’ and also that ‘conventional morality is overturned in the play’s remarkable dénouement’. If better performed here, this might have been the case. Dunster’s description of Maugham’s writing however; ‘the dialogue in the play has a formal, poetic quality. Revelations unfold calmly rather than in burst of emotion’ falls short of what was rendered in this production. Maugham deliberately writes in an non-naturalistic way, allowing his characters to speak in a way they would never be able to in real life. Whether this is successful or not is often a matter of taste, and also dependent on what does the audience expect from the play? If the interview with Dunster is to be believed, they could have expected thought-provoking drama and an intense psychological narrative.
The reality was that much of the emotional significance that could have been gleaned from Maugham’s words was bleached out by an average delivery from the vast majority of the cast. As a company they had little chemistry, the dialogue was stilted due to a serious lack of pace, conviction of delivery was often absent and when not speaking several of the actors seemed to fall into a sort of unseeing trance, glued to the spot until their next line came. At some points the movement was so amateurish, the voices so unnaturally high pitched there were titters of laughter from the audience in completely inappropriate places. A beautiful set, haunting score and crisp, elegant costumes were not enough to save this production from a complete lack of self-awareness. Moments of high pathos in Maugham’s sensitive, highly provocative script were rendered interminably dull, wasted with fluffed lines and insincerity.