Tuesday 11 December 2018

Theatre: A horribly good performance of beastliness

The Vortex, the Gate Theatre, Dublin

Susannah Harker in The Vortex
Susannah Harker in The Vortex

John McKeown

Noel Coward's theatrical breakthrough came in 1924 with The Vortex, a controversial play that was almost banned for its portrayal of drug-addiction and adultery among the English upper-classes. Coward insisted it was a moral indictment of drug-taking, and it certainly is an almost glaringly moral tale, lacking in the wit and grace of his later work. But Annabelle Comyn's superbly designed production has a great deal of charm and, in Rory Fleck Byrne, as Nicky Lancaster, a lot of power.

Nicky is the flighty son of Florence Lancaster, a self-obsessed socialite who refuses to acknowledge advancing age or deny herself anything her 'temperament' requires, particularly young men such as Tom, who she insists is madly in love with her. Her more practical friend Helen tries to open her eyes, but Florence is having none of it – until a distraught Nicky brutally shatters her illusions.

Comyn's assembled a strong and sometimes compelling cast. None of these people is really likeable, and it's well nigh impossible to feel anything for the emotional problems of the idle rich, but there are moments when we have to sympathize with Susannah Harker's Florence, particularly when she asks her son Nicky why she shouldn't live exactly the way she wants to. Helen, played by Fiona Bell, is also rather heavy-handed in insisting she realise her age and generally grow up, and we do feel with Florence that there is a conspiracy against her liberty.

In a sense she's right, the practical types are against her excessive emotion, and emotion in general – it's alien to their class. "The great thing is not to be obvious" says Helen, while Bunty, the fiancée Nicky brings back from Paris only likes him "clear-cut, not blurred by sentiment".

There are some excellent clashes between the opposing camps during Florence's country house party, a cocaine-dabbing Nicky setting the tone with his frantic Charleston and climaxing in Florence discovering her beloved Tom kissing Bunty.

Nicky defects to the practical camp in the third act, pleading with Florence to be a real mother for the first time and to stop him from destroying himself. There's some implausibility in this Parisian habitué being shocked by his mother's infidelities, but it's soon lost in the fierce energy Byrne pours into the now dangerously unhinged Nicky, a self-pitying brat, blaming Florence for ruining his life and demanding she reform herself.

It's a horribly good performance, encapsulating the repulsiveness of England's inter-war ruling class, who "swirl about in a vortex of beastliness".

Irish Independent

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