Michael Grandage, the Donmar's new artistic director who as taken over from the insuperable Sam Mendes, has chosen for his first production, The Vortex, one of Noel Coward's earlier and lesser known plays.
The Vortex, first performed in 1924, almost came under the censor of the Lord Chamberlain, not so much because it dealt with the issue of drugs, toy boys and marriage infidelity, but because it was a play "calculated to foster class hatred". In other words, British high society was being dissected and found wanting.
Whilst shaking down the high and mighty from their preening branches of privilege seems a more than worthwhile profession for a playwright, it is the manner and somewhat sermonising sardonic tone with which Coward sets about this task which is this plays weakness. The script reveals the writing of a young genius that has not yet matured to the stage where he can observe the complexities of people's foibles. Like a teenage child he harangues the weaknesses of grown ups, before discovering the perplexities of adult life. The Vortex lacks the pensive eye of a mature observer, an eye which Coward later develops and uses to write such marvellous plays as “Design For Living".
The story concerns Florence Lancaster; a woman who has made her way in life by relying upon her dazzling good looks and the ability this gives her to seduce others so that they respond to her every whim. However, as she now heads towards her more mature years she begins to take on the appearance of mutton dressed as lamb and so reassures herself of her “beauty and youth” by alluring vacuous young men into her bed. She becomes less and less capable of relating to those who remind her of her true age, especially her husband, who she constantly refers too as “old”. When Nicky, her once adoring son returns from Paris with his fiancé in tow, this is yet another reminder of her maturing years, a reminder that she will be unwilling to accept.
Nicky is terribly unhappy and whilst in Paris discovered the consolation that cocaine has to offer. His return home brings the unhappiness of the Lancaster household to its inevitable climax. Nicky confesses to his mother of his drug addiction and blames her for his miserable existence. “You have never been a mother to me!” he plaintively laments as he weeps uncontrollably.
The cast perform well, especially Francesca Annis as Florence. She has the affectation of a woman whose physical beauty has peaked but whose mind has singularly failed to register the fact. Deborah Findlay gives a strong performance as Helen Saville, Florence's friend and the only one prepared to stand up to her. However, she fails to bring out the comical side to her character, a more exaggerated exasperation at Florence's ridiculous behaviour would have matched the play far more than the caustic condescending tone she often adopts.
The casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Nicky has got to go down as one of the all time classics of miscasting. The play is placed in 1920's high society. The stage setting with it's art-décor perfectly captures the era, as do the marvellous costumes, so why pick a black actor for this role? There is no way on god's green earth that the Lancaster family would have a black son. It has one pondering such stupid questions as: Is he adopted or is he Florence's illegitimate offspring from an exotic affair and the colour of his skin yet another fact of life which her friends, if they have any wisdom - which one instinctively knows they will delightfully have none - will choose to ignore?
Chiwetel Ejiofor shows every potential of being a fine actor, but in this play he looks out of place. His noble features and dashing good looks' suit the part but alas the director appears to have ignored the script. Nicky is constantly being told that he looks exhausted and being asked concerned questions about his health, yet Ejiofor gives every appearance of being a healthy and vigorous young man. He also fails to give any impression of being a mummy's boy who is in desperate need of his mother's love. As a result the final confrontation between Nicky and his mother is totally perplexing! Why does his mother's love matter so much to such a strong-minded individual?
We are told in the programme notes that many believed from the original production of 'The Vortex', that Coward had based the character of Nicky upon himself - a role that Coward played in the original production - and implied Nicky was homosexual. Coward must have been as self-deluded as poor Florence if he really saw himself as the macho man that I saw swaggering on the Donmar stage last night!
There is not a hint of homosexuality in this play, which made Nicky's castigation of his mother for all his unhappiness lack conviction. One sensed that Ejiofor's Nicky was just acting out of a bored spoilt self-obsession and not someone desperately seeking to discover self-acceptance in his mother's love, a love that he had so far never received.
A good strong production with fine acting, but one that fails to peak because of the miscasting of Nicky, and an apparently stubborn refusal to even hint that Nicky may be addicted to more than just cocaine.
What other critics had to say.....
CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "There are dry martinis, cigarette holders and beautiful frocks in abundance, but the production does not short-change the audience when it comes to raw emotion."; BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "[Chiwetel] Ejiofor isn’t initially edgy and fidgety enough to prepare us for his big explosion, but, when it comes, he flings out emotional shrapnel with impressive power. " MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "In a fine performance that transcends the artificial barriers of race Ejiofor makes us painfully aware that Nicky's tragedy is his lack of maternal love." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "This 'Vortex' needs more spin to bring a scandal of yesteryear back to life." ANTHONY HOLDEN for THE OBSERVER says, "Throughout this production there are things to admire."
External links to full reviews from newspapers