The Sacred Flame, The Oxford Playhouse

With the decision to produce W. Somerset Maugham’s 1928 whodunit The Sacred Flame, Matthew Dunster and English Touring Theatre have taken a fairly unusual step. Their decision to revive this rarely performed play has, as the programme acknowledges, been “raising eyebrows” – and, to an extent, one can see why: while audiences contemporary with it would certainly have been shocked by the play’s content, our modern ears are already adjusted to the play’s message.
The unexpected death of Maurice Tabret (Jamie De Courcey), a bed-ridden “naked, tortured, triumphant soul” who was horribly injured in a WW1 aeroplane crash, casts a dark shadow over the whole Tabret household. Indeed, his performance in Act One is so strong that we are left if anything more bereft than the characters around him. His wife, Stella (Beatriz Romilly), isn’t left particularly distraught and his brother Colin (David Ricardo-Pearce) shows only the signs and semblances of grief. No prizes for guessing what’s going on between them. His mother (Margot Leicester) manages to hold herself together until Nurse “there’s nothing ‘come hither’ about her” Wayland (Sarah Churm) asserts that Maurice’s death was not due to the ‘natural causes’ Dr Harvester (Al Nedjari) would have us believe, but murder. Drama ensues, with family friend Major Liconda (Robert Demeger) officiating the proceedings.
There are many strong points about this production: it gives a powerful voice to the legitimacy of female sexuality, successfully raises debates about the right to die, and amplifies the patronising misogyny inherent in the period’s middle class. Unfortunately, the force of these themes is somewhat removed by the unfeasibly clipped and high-register speech patterns which renders everything simply unnatural. One of the wonderful things about Maugham’s dialogue is its poetic quality, through which he explores the rhetorical heights we might reach if only we considered what we were going to say. Unfortunately, the grounded delivery required to give it any sense of realism is never quite achieved by the cast (excepting De Courcey and, in particular, Leicester), hindered as they are by Dunster’s inexplicable fondness for dramatic looks to the audience and stilted movement.
We are further jolted out of the world of the play by the frankly bizarre decision to have fully-lit stage hands and cast laboriously setting scenes together, and the unnecessary electric fans whirring in the background really do nothing except to distract from Anna Fleischle’s beautifully stark art deco design.
Ultimately, if the actors had been allowed to speak their words as if they were their own (which Leicester does to great effect), we might have been persuaded that the often out-dated messages of the play were relevant. As it is, the beauty was lost underneath fey ‘old fashioned’ voices, and any potency missed because we were all – young and old alike – too busy sniggering at its miscalculated hyperbole.
The Sacred Flame is touring the United Kingdom until November 24th.
PHOTO/English Touring Theatre


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