Behind The Moon’s production of Noel Coward’s The Astonished Heart is daringly staged and refreshing in its revision of the original play’s ostensible premise: a love triangle between psychiatrist Christian Faber, played here as Chris (Colin Walsh), his wife Barbara (Michelle Reid), and Leonora, or in this version, Leon (Stephen Masterson). Instead of presenting a period piece that dwells on the intricacies of love and infidelity in general, however, director Geoff O’ Keeffe nudges the play’s sexual undertones to the fore by casting Leon as male, and thus attempts to revitalise the emotional tension of the script in a homo- and bi-sexual context.
Laudably, this production sets out to explore what happens when Coward’s closet is opened, and all its hidden sexual paraphernalia exposed – a valuable experiment, and one which doubtless could be made to work in interesting ways with other plays in Coward’s canon.
The overall result in this case, however, is a production that feels amateurish, under-funded, and a little confused, ultimately failing to build on its initially audacious interpretation of Coward’s script. The difficulty is that in choosing to take a full-frontal approach to the play’s evidently complicated dynamics of sex and sexuality, O’ Keefe loses Coward’s submerged intensities and scintillating innuendo. For the most part, what we’re left with is clumsy and often tiresome melodrama, and this is not the fault of the (admittedly uneven) script alone. The inexplicable insistence on Irish accents, for example, as well as the somewhat monotonous hysteria which the actors seem keen to assume at every turn, has the effect of converting the articulate fluency of the characters’ dialogue to an alienating affectation. When Barbara observes to her husband that they “are tremendously necessary to one another”, and later Chris howls that he “can’t stop struggling” beneath the burdens of social mores and sexual desire, the potentially incisive effects of these lines are lost in the mumbling rhythms and shrill solemnity which this production apparently dons with enthusiasm.
In addition to which, the production values are noticeably low, and this disappointing fact seems to have taken its toll on the set design and already somewhat disjunctive scene changes: essentially, a double-bed with flagrantly red sheets is pushed two feet to the left or to the right, depending on the setting. Meanwhile, the decision to have Barbara pace the floor singing Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” mid-way through the play feels arbitrary and misguided, only entrenching the sense of almost comical sincerity under which the production as a whole often labours.
The Astonished Heart, then, is an example of an interesting, and even necessary, adaptation which falls short in the execution – which is a shame. A more rigorous approach to script and character on the part of O’Keefe and his cast might have regained the many intimacies underlying Coward’s dialogue without disregarding all the subtleties that express them. Such a production would have the makings of a fine piece of theatre. As it is, the closet has exploded, but Coward also seems to have gone missing. The latter fact, needless to say, is something of a disappointment.
The Astonished Heart is in Players Theatre, Trinity College, and runs until Saturday 16th May.