Embrace of disgrace
Noel Coward THE VORTEX Donmar Warehouse
Michael Grandage's production of The Vortex capitalizes on Noel Coward's growing reputation as one of the most successfully revived playwrights in the West End. This 1924 piece draws heavily on Coward's own life. Although written in the wake of his visit to New York in 1921, and dramatically influenced by the pace of Broadway, The Vortex and its characters live in the aftermath of the First World War. Specifiically, Cow¥d drew on the scandal of the chorus girl Billie Qarleton, found dead from a cocaine overdose at the Savoy Hotel on the night of the 1918 Armistice Ball; and from his post-war relationship with a young guardsman, Stewart Forster, whose gadfly mother preferred men her son's age. There are other shadows, too, such as the Pemberton Billing "Black Book" trial of 1918, which detected a subversive Wildean decadence still at work in Britain; and the sexual liberation presaged by the publicaation, in the same year, of Marie Stopes's Married Love.
These are the undercurrents to what appears to be a society chamber piece. The London hostess Florence Lancaster (Francesca Annis), who lightens her hair and douses her Turkish cigarettes i~ perfume, is surrounded by fey older men and histrionic opera singers. She has in tow a hearty boyfriend called Tom Veryan (Mark Umbers); her husband remains quietly,
tolerantly, in the background of their Park Lane flat and Kentish country house. When their son, Nicky, returns from Paris, engaged to a standard-issue It Girl, Bunty Mainwaring (Indira Varma), Helen, Florence's wise counselllor, diagnoses drug abuse from the shape of a silver box in Nicky's coat pocket. Suddenly, the elaborate facade of the Lancasters' artificial world begins to fall apart.
In the beautifully handled party scene from Act Two, the cast are caught in a freeze-framed tableau as a wistful series of sustained piano chords washes over them. Each face registers an audit of the action to date; we see trauma and terror in their expressions. The moment recalls the only other Coward piece to which The Vortex bears any resemblance: his 1930 antiiwar polemic, Post-Mortem, in which trench warfare and the salons of high society are
satirically lit by the same guttering Verey light. Grandage and the designer Christopher Oram achieve a similar limbo effect in this producction, echoing the work of that other great modem Coward interpreter, Philip Prowse, by evoking the netherworld of the inter-war period, stripping away the superficial nostalgia to show the damaged social tissue underneath.
A similar mood of pathological concealment surrounds the boy-outsider figure of Nicky Lancaster, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Does his neurosis stem from his cocaine habit; or is his addiction a symptom of some greater malaise? Coward's intentions become clear when Nicky confronts Florence in the final act. "It's not your fault", he tells her, after she discovers her husband and Bunty in a passionate embrace. "It's the fault of circumstances and civilization - civilization makes rottenness so much easier
- we're utterly rotten - both of us .... How can
we help ourselves? - We swirl about in a vortex of beastliness." They have all been on the brink of disgrace, and it has taken only a litttle cocaine and a compromising kiss to open their eyes to the world's sordid reality. In this reading, The Vortex becomes a piece of Jazz
Age eschatology, and the vexed mother-son relationship a Gertrude-Hamlet fixation by way of Freud.
Grandage's colour-blind casting of Ejiofor as Nicky is a masterstroke. Both director and actor play down the implicit feyness of the character (and the received wisdom that Nicky's addicction is a metaphor for homosexuality); and although this slightly undermines his relationnship with the flighty Florence, when the two are perhaps best seen as two halves of the same personality, Ejiofor is a delight to watch as he teases out the role's subtle contradictions. Equally enjoyable is Bette Borne's Paunie Quentin - an "elderly maiden gentleman" and mod~l of dry, epigrammatic camp - and Deborah Findlay's nuanced Helen, confessor to both Lancasters in their unfolding tragedy.
The Vortex is not a major play, but such power as it has derives from its mannered archness and the unspoken but keenly felt legacy of Armageddon (underlined by the fact that on its first production, in 1924, the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cromer, sought to "ban this play entirely" because it was "calculated to foster class hatred"). By preserving the sense of period - not least in a set which has a Grand Hotel veneer to it, all Eileen Gray tubular chrome and deluxe, waiting-room transience (Grandage has allowed the play to speak, and what it has to say is still worth hearing.