The Sacred Flame – October 2012

8/10

By W Somerset Maugham

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 26th October 2012

It was an interesting choice by ETT to put on this neglected Maugham play. The style of the production was equally interesting, and although I didn’t care for some aspects of the staging, the play itself and the performances quickly had me engaged and involved.

The set was spartan but effective. Blank walls demarcated the space: there was a bedroom centrally placed at the back, a wide space in front of it, a door to the garden back left with some gravel in front of it, and stairs leading up to a balcony on the right. There was a door up there to the upper rooms, and some shelves to the left of the bedroom for the drinks tray, books, etc. The furniture was equally Spartan – apart from the hospital bed for the invalid there were a few chairs and several large fans which were in action at various times; I found the noise a bit distracting, and as there was no reason for them other than the occasional references to hot summer weather, I could have done without them altogether. The costumes were also in period, the late 1920s.

The story and style were both unusual. The story concerned Maurice Tabret, a WWI pilot who was severely injured either during or after the war, and who was completely bedridden, paralysed from the waist down. His young wife, who had married him only a few months before his injury, was doing her best to stay both cheerful and faithful, but it was soon obvious that she was actually in love with Maurice’s brother Colin, who was back on leave from his plantation. Mrs Tabret, Maurice and Colin’s mother, also lived with Maurice and Stella, his wife, and they were visited regularly by Dr Harvester and the recently arrived Major Liconda. Nurse Wayland looked after Maurice daily and lived in, and it was her insistence, after Maurice’s death, that he had been poisoned which created the whole drama. The first half of the play set up the situation and the characters, while the second half dealt with the fallout from the nurse’s assertion about the missing pills.

In dealing with the question of murder or assisted suicide, Maugham is much more explicit about female sexuality than usual, even nowadays. Stella’s difficult situation and her needs, the passionate affection felt by the nurse and the mother’s love for her son are all explored in a somewhat clinical way, yet I found I was engaged with the characters and emotionally involved. There was some lovely humour too; the Major had a very entertaining expression on his face when Mrs Tabret was exposing his feelings for her from many years before, and her dismissal of any current prospects for him were equally amusing.

The play’s language is formal and heightened, like a Greek tragedy, and this was emphasised by the stark nature of the set. This created a claustrophobic atmosphere, entirely suitable for the nature of the accusations which were being flung around. Although this wasn’t a murder mystery as such, we were still keen to know the truth about Maurice’s death, and the final revelation was very satisfactory on that score. The nurse’s decision was also believable, given the circumstances and her personality, and when it finished I was very glad that we’d caught this on tour – it’s a good play, though I can see why it might not be revived very often.

The performances were all very good. Robert Demeger is an established favourite with us, and his Major Liconda was very enjoyable. Margot Leicester was an imposing presence as Mrs Tabret, and she was matched by Sarah Churm as Nurse Wayland. Al Nedjari gave a strong performance as the doctor, and although I found Beatriz Romilly a little lightweight as Stella, overall the rest of the cast were fine.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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