By Andrew MacNiven
‘Easy Virtue’ is an ambitious undertaking from third year acting students and other creatives at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). This performance partly re-imagines the source material, while displaying an equal mastery of the original text.
Noel Coward’s play first opened in 1925 in New York to significant acclaim, while the reception in London a year later was frostier. It is easy to see why; as Coward’s caustic humour was a subversive comment on the detached indifference of Britain’s moneyed classes.
Audiences might question the relevance of presenting a play written almost a century ago, but this is no static diorama, not merely a window into some bygone age full of irrelevant philosophies and outmoded curios. Rather, the talented cast and extensive artistic and creative team at WAAPA have crafted a fine comedy of manners, which informs as it entertains, confronting how women who failed to conform to societal norms were ostracised.
The action takes place on an English country estate, as the Whittakers prepare to welcome their son John (Samuel Delich) back to the family home, along with his new wife Larita (Emilie Cocquerel). She arrives as an American antidote to the haughty, stuffy surrounds. Crystallised in her are those inherently Columbian values of independence, perseverance and permissiveness, which clash harshly with the ossified class structure that characterised Edwardian England. Her forthright manner and openness about her past dalliances are anathema to the prudish Marion (Justina Ward), John’s sister, and scandalise his hysterical, house-proud mother (Shaynee Brayshaw).
Cocquerel is a bewitching presence, exuding a playful lasciviousness that represents the unattainable promise of romantic freedom for Colonel Whittaker (William Thompson), who possesses the manner and aspect of a once proud, now caged, old lion. Larita is an explosive force, ripping apart the veneer of affectation that surrounds the English aristocracy and exposing the hypocrisies of the repressed, inhibited and sanctimonious.
Director Jason Langley has done an admirable job of ensuring the contemporary relevance of what threatened to be a parochial narrative. He ensures that the play does not become mired in the minutiae of its more antiquated elements, liberally employing a smattering of present-day songs performed by the multi-talented cast, which perfectly bookend the performance’s acts. This could have had the effect of being jarring – bringing the audience out of the action – but the poise with which these songs are performed in a style befitting a 1920s cabaret revue proves a superb augmentation to Coward’s insurgent wit.
The set design of Hannah Metternick-Jones, with its Art Deco patterns and clever use of a giant portrait frame, astutely recalls the debauched whimsy of the Jazz Age.
Langley and his gifted cast and crew have brought new impetus to this classic, the themes of which are all too familiar to contemporary audiences. ‘Easy Virtue’ proves that some things never change.