A Flea in Her Ear: A Smile on Our Faces

Posted on January 25th, 2011 by

“Performing farce demands a split-second precision that makes every other form of drama seem like a piece of cake.”—John Morrison, author of Feydeau and the Art of Farce

Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear was certainly a farcical show. Our group saw this show on Wednesday, January 12 at The Old Vic in Southbank. The Southbank is a beautiful riverside area of London along the Thames packed with music, art, theatre, film, and festivals, along with other free events. The Old Vic itself was established in 1818, as the Royal Coburg theatre, and has been producing highly acclaimed shows ever since. Actors such as Judi Dench, Lawrence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, and Kevin Spacey (who is the current artistic director) have been part of the company and board. A Flea in Her Ear was written originally in French by Georges Feydeau in and was translated and adapted into English by John Mortimer in 1966 where it debuted at The Old Vic. For us, it was certainly thrilling to see this play performed on the same stage where it debuted 45 years ago.

A Flea in Her Ear was a sex-crazed romp of chaos and misunderstandings. The plot, set in Paris in the year 1900, follows the beautiful Raymonde Chandebise, who suspects her husband, Victor Emmanuel Chandebise, to be having an affair due to his sudden lack of sexual appetite for her. She, with the help of her friend Lucienne, devises a scheme to lure the (actually faithful) Victor Emmanuel to the infamously raunchy Hotel Coq d’Or by writing an anonymous love letter to him arranging a meeting. Victor Emmanuel, confused by the letter, thinks it must actually be for his friend Tournel, who immediately rushes away to meet the anonymous lady writer. Still pondering the note, Victor Emmanuel shows it to Lucienne’s husband, a passionate Spaniard named Carlos Homenides de Histangua, who instantly recognizes the letter’s handwriting as Lucienne’s and dashes off with his pistol brandished to set things straight. Unbeknownst to all, also at the Hotel Coq d’Or that day for a bit of their own fun are Camille Chandebise, nephew of Raymonde and Victor Emmanuel, who is having an affair with Antoinette the cook. Her husband, the butler Etienne, is also at the hotel, trying to catch them in the act. And perhaps adding most to the commotion is Poche, the drunken hotel worker who is the spitting image of Victor Emmanuel (both characters are played by the same man).

There was so much supposed infidelity and actual infidelity that it could have become near impossible to tell who was cheating on, flirting with, mistaken for, or misunderstanding whom! Yet the impeccably fast dialogue and precise entrances and exits made the audience fully aware of all the twists and gaffs happening onstage. The show was a whirlwind of insanity with multitudes of mayhem and confusion between the characters, yet because of the precision of all the details, even things purposefully confusing (i.e., Camille Chandebise’s thick speech impediment) were clear and hilarious. The timing was superb, making it one of the fastest-paced shows I have ever seen. As Sacha Guitry, French stage and film actor, director, and writer said of the show:
“The unique gift which Feydeau possessed was the ability to provoke laughter infallibly, mathematically, at a precise moment of his own choosing and for a defined number of seconds.”
This perfectly sums up the genius of A Flea in Her Ear: although the audiences had frequent, huge laughs, it never slowed down the timing of the show. According to the playbill, whereas “comedy is an art of two dimensions, Feydeau wrote in three… with detailed stage directions and blocking on one side of the page and dialogue on the other.” Due to Feydeau’s extreme direction in the script, the accuracy ran like clockwork and the amount and quality of physical action was enormous.

My only disappointment of the show was that, due to Mr. Hollander’s “indisposition”, the lead roles of Victor Emmanuel Chandebise and Poche were not played by the originally casted and highly-acclaimed Tom Hollander, but by an understudy, Greg Baldock. I found the characters of Chandebise and Poche both to be rather unlikeable, and am interested to know whether that is due to the script or if I would have preferred Mr. Hollander in the roles. Yet, overall, this did not greatly detract from my experience or from the audience’s (based upon their laughter and enjoyment). Our audience consisted of a range of ages, young children and up, and although this show was filled to the brim with sexual innuendos, it moved so quickly that it is doubtful a child would catch most of them. A child would, however, be delighted by the fast action and ridiculous and silly physicality, making this an appealing show across for all ages.


One Comment

  1. Jennica says:

    It’s much eisaer to understand when you put it that way!