Brisk repartee: Coward’s wit mark Gate Theatre’s production of ‘Hay Fever’

Spoleto Festival USA 2012The Gate Theatre production of 'Hay Fever' by Noel Coward photo by Patrick Redmond

A lion of the British stage and a distinctive film actor, Noel Coward was a playwright, composer, director, actor and singer renowned for his urbane, flamboyant personality and an uncommonly sharp wit.

So it comes as a surprise to learn that a portion of his style was borrowed from the blokes and birds across the Pond.

“Coward’s style was more exaggerated in his day,” says actress Ingrid Craigie, who plays the leading role of Judith Bliss in the Gate Theatre’s Spoleto Festival production of “Hay Fever.”

“His was a quick and clipped manner of speaking that was always thought to be particularly English, but he learned it in America.

“It was a signature style of American performance in the 1940s (think Howard Hawks), with people thinking and speaking much more quickly than they do in real life.”

Directed by Patrick Mason, and played by the Gate entirely as written, “Hay Fever” introduces audiences to the eccentric Bliss family: a star actress mother, a self-absorbed novelist father and their two adult children. For each, all the world’s a stage.

Literally. Coward’s comedic flair is only one of the qualities of “Hay Fever” that makes it a pleasure for actors, Craigie says.

“The plot is minimal; it is all about performance. The play has been described as a mixture of high farce and comedy of manners — or bad manners, as I prefer to think of it. It’s a delight for actors, and enormous fun, but takes a lot of concentration and accuracy.

“The changes are so swift you have to be on top of every moment to keep it up in the air, shimmering along.”

The lure of melodrama When an actress plays an actress, is there a tendency for a comic performance to go a bit over the top?

“It’s a funny thing. Judith Bliss is not really the greatest actress in the world,” says Craigie, whose extensive stage and screen credits defy simple listing. “She comes from an older, Edwardian theater style. So she would be a popular West End actress but not necessarily great.

“She is very eccentric and very badly behaved. But she also has another side to her character. You’ve got to find a way of reflecting that her life is a dramatization. Actresses don’t really behave like that at all.”

When Coward wrote the play, a number of actors who saw themselves in his characters were upset.

“He was looking at the actors he knew and putting them on stage in an exaggerated way. He is quite cruel about actors in some ways, but he also loved them.”

Love affair “Hay Fever” marks the Gate Theatre’s eighth visit to Spoleto. For Craigie, who performed here last year in the Druid Theatre’s production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” it will be her first appearance at the festival with the Gate.

”It does seem to be a bit of a love affair, doesn’t it? I love festivals in general, but especially the ones that aren’t just about the theater.”

That said, Craigie is mindful of the gravitas of the Gate, its reputation and tradition. She has been associated with it, on and off, for more than 20 years.

“We love history in Ireland, in Dublin particularly. The Gate was founded in 1928 by Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir, the great Irish actor and his partner. They were an extraordinary couple who remained there for years and years.”

A continuity the Gate has enjoyed for much of its storied history. In December of 1983, the directorship bestowed on Michael Colgan.

“There have been very few directors of this theater,” says Craigie, oft honored for her contributions to Irish Theatre. “Continuity can work in your favor or against it. But Michael is a remarkable artistic director. He loves the tradition of the Gate and always embraced the kind of work they used to do, but he has followed his own interests as well.”

While the founders were most closely associated with writers such as Oscar Wilde and in bringing the European theater to Ireland, Craigie says Colgan has gravitated to such playwrights as Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

As always, it is about the writing.

“Michael loves great writing, so he has a special love for Becket and Pinter, Wilde and Coward. At the moment he is especially interested in developing new writing and writers,” says Craigie. “Michael rarely directs, apart from Becket and Pinter, but he comes in and watches over the production with great care. His notes are always incredibly astute and useful.”