Paul Anderson, review of A Flea in Her Ear by Georges Feydeau (Old Vic) , Tribune 25 August 1989
Georges Feydeau was a contemporary of Alfred Jerry and Sigmund Freud, and his work, like Jarry’s and Freud’s, was much admired by later surrealists and absurdists. Eugene Ionesco, for example, described Feydeau as “the true precursor of the Marx Brothers and other American comedians, in whose work everything starts with apparent casualness, only to end up in a state of precipitation — which may well be an accurate caricature of our own agitation, our gallop towards the abyss”.
So why not go for an uncompromising modernist interpretation of A Flea in Her Ear? That is certainly what Richard Jones has tried with his Old Vic production, which goes out of its way to emphasise the serious modern core of Feydeau’s farce.
Out go the stuffy interiors and costumes normally associated with fin de siecle French vaudeville; in come some exquisite sets from the Brothers Quay (an elegant office and the seediest brothel imaginable) and some gloriously improbable over-the-top outfits (at least for the women) by Sue Blanc. Instead of presenting believable characters in an improbable situation, as Feydeau intended, the play becomes the nightmare story of Victor Emmanuel Chandebise’s fantasy of sexual impotence, peopled by ghoulish caricatures. The whole thing is taken at about half the normal farce pace.
All this works particularly well where the caricatures are particularly cruel — as with Kevin William’s psychotic hot-blooded Carlos Homenides De Histangua, Phelim McDermott’s ineffectual Camille Chandebise and Matthew Scurfield’s sadistic brothel-keeper.
There are times when no amount of clowning can make up for the (deliberate) lack of characterisation in Feydeau’s parts and times (remarkably few) when the play is simply too slow but, on the whole, Jones’s unorthodox treatment is both instructive and hugely entertaining.