A writer’s intentions can sometimes be unimportant to the appreciation of his works. Not so with this play. It is, I think, vital, that you take with you into the Oxford Playhouse a certain awareness of Maugham’s aims in writing The Sacred Flame, and, indeed, take heed of Director Matthew Dunster’s words in the programme.
Specifically, it should be acknowledged from the outset that Maugham wanted the dialogue to sound as formal as it does. In The Summing Up, the playwright declared the following:
On the contrary, the characters seem almost inhuman at times, so perfectly chosen are their words; so startlingly aphoristic some of the thoughts they express. On these grounds, the play is a resounding success and the actors and Director can only be praised for attaining precisely the delivery that Maugham describes.This is, however, a dramatic affair. Somerset Maugham was a brilliant storyteller, seemingly able to spin an infectious tale out of anything that crossed his path. This play is no different and, being so, creates the interesting sensation of an engaging drama unfolding through disengaging dialogue. The ceiling of formality created by the characters’ speech is scarcely penetrated throughout and, when it is, it is often at the point of only the very extremes of emotional responses. It’s a great story, delivered in a rigid way and it’s a mixture that isn’t quite satisfying.
Knowing that this was Maugham’s intention, then, can free the audience to appreciate this particular production or, at the very least, direct any frustration that might be provoked by the delivery onto the playwright, and not the producers. They do a fine job. The set is simple and well lit. An occasional, gentle drone is utilised at intervals to create tension and the always welcome sound of Richard Hawley marks one instance of the approach of an ominous dawn.
The actors do an excellent job of what must be a quite challenging task. Jamie De Courcey and Sarah Churm provide those rare moments of sincerity as Maurice Tabret and Nurse Wayland respectively. It is in their pained exclamations that the roof of linguistic exactitude is swiftly punctured. Margot Leicester plays a brilliantly world weary Mrs Tabret, a woman who has learnt a great deal from life - not least the blurring of moral boundaries that human existence so necessarily cultivates. And Robert Demeger carries off a charming portrayal of the well meaning Major Liconda; charm being quite a feat for anyone tied into the rigidity of this particular script.Everything else you’d expect from the grand old man of letters is here: a gripping story, a hefty draft of realism about the way of the world and a sprinkling of humour. For Maugham lovers, it’s a fascinating chance to see this oddity in the canon (he never used the strictly formal dialogue again); for newcomers, an equally interesting evening’s introduction to one of the most successful writers of the last century. Just remember to blame Maugham, not Dunster, for the dialogue.
Rory McCluckie (DI Reviewer), 03/10/12
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