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‘Blithe Spirit’: In conversation with A-squared Productions

Teagan Riches interviews Alex Foster and Alfie Dry

‘Blithe Spirit‘, running at the Keble O’Reilly theatre from the 9th – 12th November will be A2 productions final Oxford show after successes such as the ‘Dumb Waiter’ and ‘Girls and Dolls’.  I sat down with director Alex Foster, who is also co – founder of A2 Productions and Alfie Dry, a third-year human scientist playing the part of Madame Arcati, to discuss their upcoming show, launch night and their thoughts on Oxford Drama.

Alex starts by telling me about the Original ‘Blithe Spirit’ as written by Noël Coward in the 1940s. It’s about a man called Charles Condomine, married to Ruth Condomine, who invites a spiritual medium, Madame Arcati, over to his house to get information for a new book he’s writing. During a séance they accidently bring back his dead wife Elvira as a ghost. The rest of the show follows how Charles, Ruth and Elvira deal with Elvira being brought back as a ghost. Whilst staying true to muchriting, , they have decided to remix the story: the séance now brings back Charles’ dead husband, and Madame Arcati is now a drag queen. 

Q. What can we expect from your rendition of ‘Blithe Spirit’

Alex:  It’s really fun – just a big gay celebration of everything I’ve always wanted to do in Oxford Drama.

 Alfie: It’s flirty, it’s frivolous, and I think Alex made a good choice in bringing out the queerness in the piece because it is coded very queer anyway. Noël Coward himself was queer, and so bringing out these characters and giving them the full flesh of life like Noël Coward might have intended has been really fun. We’re exploring what it means to be a lot of different identities in a lot of different ways, which has been very fun and a very thought-provoking process. 

Alex: Madame Arcati is very much man and woman at the same time. The fact she brings back Charles’ husband and now he’s got this kind of dead and buried homosexuality contrasted with his apparent straightness. Now it is quite literally bringing the skeletons out of the closet. 

I would say very recently I’ve made my peace with my sexuality, and it’s taken a very long time. The fact that Charles is bisexual now, as opposed to heterosexual as he is in the original script – it felt like I was kind of being true to myself, but also to Noël Coward, who was very much a gay man. 

To my knowledge, we are the first ‘Blithe Spirit’ to have a drag queen playing Madame Arcati and definitely the first to bring back a man. 

Alfie: I think it’s important to remember that whilst we do have all these lovely queer themes and there are deeper meanings for cast members and writers alike, it’s just loads of fun. 

Alex: I think above all, yes, it’s got deep themes but it really was just an excuse to put four absolutely sensational comic actors on the stage. What’s quite funny is that making it more pronouncedly queer has meant that the jokes are just dirtier and sexier and funnier. We get quite crude at times, but it’s just going to be a wild four nights in the O’Reilly. 

Q. Why was it important to you, and why is it important more broadly speaking to adapt the play to include queer themes? 

Alex: I think it’s obviously hugely important for plays to delve into queer themes, yes potentially there are certain plays, not just in Oxford but generally, which are using queer themes as a marketing ploy.

I think at the end of the day, if you are adapting a play for queer themes, I think that’s good enough. You don’t usually have to think too hard about it because the original play isn’t going to go away. Like Dracula wasn’t queer until Serendipity Productions did it last term. That’s its own interpretation of that. It doesn’t mean that the original Dracula or the original ‘Blithe Spirit’ goes away. It’s just a different understanding of the text that allows you to open up all these other questions. 

Alfie: I think the important thing is that we have a queer leader steering the ship. We have queer cast members playing queer characters, in most cases. Even then, those who are straight will talk and this creates dialogue, which I think is really important; people getting a better understanding of what it’s like on either side. 

I would say the only thing for me that I feel is still possibly an issue, is that a lot of people will feel like they would like to hide their sexuality, especially in this industry, in fear of only being put into queer roles, of which there aren’t as many as we’d like. 

Me being a drag queen, I love this. I’m so glad to be doing this show. I’ve also had the opportunity in Oxford to play many straight roles, which has been great, but whilst I think it’s important that we remember to celebrate our queerness and cast queer actors in these roles, don’t pigeonhole us either.

They talk about how this is their collaborative perspective on the writing which has undergone many revivals. Alex talks about the joy of being able to add their own interpretation, opening up new questions but also staying as true to the original writing as possible, stating: “The script’s not being edited beyond changing Elvira’s name to Evelyn. All the jokes are the same”. 

Q. We all need a bit of light – hearted relief, but what made you choose to stage a comedy? 

Alex: I really like comedy because there’s kind of an instant feedback mechanism with the audience. If you’ve gone out to make a comedy and people are laughing, you know that you’re doing a good job. It’s a bit easier than in a tragedy where you throw yourself into the abyss and you’ve got a monologue and  the audience might sit up in their seats, but you can’t really tell quite as much if they’re enjoying it. It also means it hits harder when there are darker moments, as you’re eased into an almost false sense of security. 

The real answer is, I just like people laughing at my shows, it’s just fun, isn’t it?

Alfie: I think it’s interesting for us bringing up the idea of “easy or hard” here. I think comedy is harder to write; I think it’s harder to perform and harder to direct because a single missed beat and you’ve lost it. You’ve lost the joke and you’ve lost the audience’s interest. 

I think that’s why it’s shied away from in the Oxford drama scene. I think sticking to a show, which can be defined as a comedy, is a really brave thing to do. 

Q. Is it important to you to have cast and crew who are just starting out in Oxford drama?

Alex: Obviously during covid we had a full year where there was no in-person drama at all, and after lockdown it was the third-years who had their first year pre – covid doing all these shows and passing the institutional knowledge onto us. Especially with lighting and sound, it’s just so complicated and that knowledge wasn’t there. We did an introduction to tech and lighting at the O’Reilly the other weekend and that was really helpful because Evie, our wonderful lighting designer, explains it to people. Then it’s like, oh this actually isn’t that hard.

The moment you get involved and the moment someone takes a chance on you it becomes much easier. Which is why we did ‘Girls and Dolls’, it was probably the show that I’ve been proudest of in Oxford because everyone there was new, and these people sold out the BT. No one knew their names before, they bloody well do now. The entire creative team was new. Bella, who was one of the directors, is now producing ‘Blithe Spirit’. It’s wonderful to be able to see these people finally get given a chance in Oxford for drama. Three of our actors and our assistant director Lucas Angeli are all freshers or haven’t been involved before. 

Now that the institutional knowledge is being built up again it’s on the third and fourth years in Oxford to pass that on. 

Alfie: I think as an actor when you do see the same faces everywhere and then you go to an audition and you see that face, you can think well what’s the point? It’s difficult because obviously when you’re doing a show with people you tend to get very close, so not only is there that person in the room who seems to get everything, but everyone loves them, cause everyone’s done a show with them. It’s very intimidating, because it feels like you’re trying to break into a kind of unsurpassable network. 

I think that’s why it’s so important to cast freshers because many of them have some sort of background in acting which is great, they can use that and there’s already talent there. Many of them will not. It’s about creating that space where they feel they can ask those questions.  In my first few shows, people were so welcoming. 

As Alex said knowledge is passed on and trying to make it as accessible as possible is hugely important. 

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Q. Can you tell us more about the ‘Blithe Spirit’ Launch party at Plush on the 31st October? 

Alex: Your good suffering on Halloween. It’s going to be fun!

Halloween is spooky and it has ghosts. If Alfie were here, he would call it gay Christmas because it IS gay Christmas. Everyone’s looking sexy, whether that’s like a sexy mouse in mean girls or an unsexy Olive in ‘Angus thongs and perfect snogging’, which is like my Bible at this point. That’s why we’re doing a plush night on Halloween. What a spookily good deal we’ve got. You’re getting a free shot, maybe it’s a ‘Blithe Spirit’, maybe it’s a Blithe Vodka, who knows? You’re getting a free drag show from Miss Take. Who wouldn’t want to be there? It will be one for the books. 

I think it speaks on a more profound note about the kind of inclusivity we are building. If you are not having fun in Oxford Drama, then why are you doing it? Stop! This is my last play in Oxford, but I thought before I go, just do everything I’ve always wanted to do. 

Q. What are your final thoughts?

Alex: ‘Blithe Spirit’ is a celebration. It’s a celebration of these amazing actors, of Coward’s brilliant script. As it’s an O’Reilly show, it’s got a lot more for backstage people to actually get involved in. I love Oxford drama. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. To be able to go out on a show like this that just celebrates everyone and everything within the cast and crew is just…. like this is the way to go out. This is how I would want to go. 

‘Blithe Spirit’ is on at the Keble O’Reilly theatre from the 9th – 12th November. If you purchase tickets before the 1st November you get discounted entry to Plush on the 31st October, a free shot and there will be a performance by Miss Take from 9:15 to 9:45. Links to tickets can be found on A2 productions Facebook page as well as on their Instagram @asquaredprods.

Image credit: @asquaredprods

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