The Vortex, the play which established Noel Coward as a playwright, is a semi-autobiographical story of Nicky, a sexually conflicted, drug addicted young man and his troubled and troubling relationship with his mother, Florence. The play publicly, and self-consciously, set itself against Edwardian standards when first performed in 1924. In recent years The Vortex has been much revived: most notably in Sir Peter Hall’s 2008 production in the West End, most notoriously in production starring Will Young at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. In Stephen Unwin’s new production for the Rose Theatre in Kingston Kerry Fox takes on the role of Florence.
The role is Fox’s first on the British stage after a spell in Australia, starring in, among many other things, the lamentably underappreciated TV series Cloudstreet. Perhaps best known for her work with Jane Campion, the 46 year-old New Zealand actress recently completed filming on an adaptation of Lloyd Jones’s highly-regarded novel Mister Pip.
“The recent path of Coward’s reputation is really suggestive. When he died in 1973 there was clearly all this affection towards him but also a sense that his theatrical work had somehow dated in a definitive way. Yet over the last decade his reputation has experienced a rapid revival and The Vortex has become a particular favourite. It’s interesting to think why this might have happened Well, we were just talking about the quality of newspapers nowadays and there’s this similar question of shallowness in the play. We’re surrounded by this shallowness, celebrity, glamour – it’s not a new thing but it’s particularly prevalent now. But you know, some of the scenes are incredibly perceptive, it is unbelievable to think they were written by a 23 year-old. This perception about human nature and how people see themselves and position themselves in the world that it has, it’s incredibly sophisticated. That’s what makes it contemporary. It’s about human nature.”
Is this something that Unwin and his cast are keen to bring out in their production? “We’re trying to make it truthful so the stylisation is true to the characters,” she says. “Their sophistication, their repetitive speech, their way of being so bitchy and horrible to each other, the way of being smarty – that’s real to them. “Darling, darling, marvellous” is how they are. It’s not a put on. It doesn’t feel stylised.”
Fox once said that pantomime explained a lot about British men, and I ask if she thinks the same was true of Noel Coward. “What the play is saying is very; well it has a great amount of depth and perceptiveness. I don’t think it’s at all how we imagine Coward to be, a glamorous piano player or whatever, it’s much rawer.”
We move on to discussing Coward’s essential Britishness and whether Fox’s cultural background allows her to approach the play differently. “If you look at Ang Lee, what he did with Sense and Sensibility has always been an inspiration to me. The idea that coming from the outside you actually have a bit of perspective on what you are trying to portray. The Vortex is so much about class, money and a sense of sophistication, but in actual fact the human drama, the human pain, is the same as everyone else. It’s universal. It’s just that their layers of sophistication make it much more difficult for these characters to be truthful about what is going on. They’re constantly on the defensive.”
This reminds me of Bright Star, Campion’s 2009 film aboout Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawn, and that film’s physicality: the muddy, slightly alien, early nineteenth century Hampstead. Fox agrees: “We really tried not to make it an artificial period drama. Myself and Jane spent a lot of time talking about being a mother. Fanny Brawne’s mother (the character played by Fox) was so unusual for the time in that she allowed her daughter to be in love like that. How poor Fanny and Keats were and how they were struggled because of it, and also became so dependent on their friends. It’s all a bit different from this…”
We go back to talking about Coward and Florence – she does seem a tricky character to play. “My first hesitation,” Fox explains, “was how to make her empathetic, because she’s quite a monster. And that will always remain the challenge. This person who’s so extreme and self-centred and vain, to somehow have the audience understand her and feel for sorry for her. That’s the fundamental challenge.”
I wonder if she had some hesitation about taking on the role, because she seems a little young for it, but Fox corrects me. “According to the play I’m absolutely bang on. The play refers to her being twice the age of her lover. Age was different then, of course. But I do find it a bit hard to be referred to as old. It’s a challenging role in terms of style and content.”
“The Vortex is a disintegration story,” Fox explains. “You have got to get your head around the extremes of that journey. Everything is perfect at the start of the play: Florence is in love, she has all her friends, and an amazing lifestyle, and her gorgeous darling son is coming home tomorrow. And at the end her life is pretty much ripped apart.”
The Vortex is at The Rose Theatre, Kingston, from 7th February to 2nd March 2013. For further details visit the Rose Theatre website.