AFlea In Her Earis a rather vintage production.

Written back in 1907, it will hit the Sydney Theatre Company stage just shy of its centenary, which is a remarkable achievement in itself and says a lot about the staying power of Georges Feydeau’s world-renowned farce. Adding to the anticipation is the fact it has been updated by outgoing STC artistic director Andrew Upton and features a large cast of seasoned performers. The effervescent Helen Christinson explains exactly what contemporary audiences should expect from this comic classic.

“The original is already very funny,” Christinson says. “Back then you’d go to the theatre and have a good laugh, and hopefully this will do the same. I think Andrew has really contemporised the language and some of the references, which can be quite tickling for an audience. To see a show written a hundred years ago, where we’re all in period costume but with a more contemporary style of speaking and referencing to things – I always like that when I see it, I get a little thrill. I think these audiences will as well. So he’s done a complete overhaul of the language, but it’s made it so much fun.

“I have probably been quite lucky in that the comedies I have done have been tried and tested. I’ve done a Noël Coward, a West End comedy, things you know work. This one is slightly different in that while it’s been done before, this one hasn’t been done before because it’s a brand new adaptation. So we won’t know until we get it in front of a crowd.”

Feydeau wrote over 60 plays, chiefly farces, but it is those like A Flea In Her Ear and The Girl From Maxim’s that have ensured his legacy. In any piece of literature, it is hard not to read the personality of the author into the text; it’s that age-honoured custom of achieving immortality through your work (with the exception of Woody Allen, who would rather achieve it through not dying). As Christinson explains, there may well be quite more of the author woven into the story than you’d expect.

“I was just reading yesterday about him. He had a questionable paternity, so he wasn’t quite sure who his dad was, and his mum apparently had several lovers, and there’s a theory that when he wrote this play it wasn’t necessarily autobiographical, but he certainly knew what he was talking about. I suppose the French farces are always like that. French farces are more interested in relationships and intrigue: ‘Is that person having an affair?’ It’s been quite fun to explore all of that.”

Following our conversation, Christinson is off to join the rest of the cast and crew for the first full run of the production, and her excitement over the phone is palpable. Although previews are still a week away at the time of this interview, her enthusiasm for what the crowd will take from the show leaves you with little doubt the team is confident it has a winner on its hands. Still, finally encountering the energy of a live audience can find the production evolving all the way to opening night.

“Especially with comedies, you can find a lot of tweaking,” Christinson says. “All of a sudden you have people laughing, which of course hasn’t happened that entire four weeks and you kind of forget that what you’re saying is actually funny! ‘Oh yeah, I have to wait for people to laugh before I can say my next line.’ But in the past, especially with new Australian work, I’ve had things change quite dramatically, all the way up to having a rewrite of the entire ending the opening night of the show. That was huge, and because it’s a new work, you’ve workshopped but never had it before an audience. If you’ve had three or four previews you’re lucky, but it really highlights something that needs to change. And you want it to be the best it can be, of course, so you say, ‘Yep, we’ll rewrite this! Everybody, learn it for tonight!’”

It has also been an inspiration for Christinson to work under the direction of Upton, who has just one more play on his schedule for STC (Speed-The-Plow) before moving on. Having also worked with Michael Gow once before, Christinson has been exposed to some of Australia’s theatrical greats, and these relationships have had a profound effect on the young performer’s outlook.

“I love working with people who inspire me, but also allow me to find my own way through the piece, and give me that freedom to explore lots of different choices – where I have an open enough relationship with them that if I’m struggling I can go to them for help, or they can see that I’m not sure which direction to take. Andrew is magnificent and so much fun to work with, letting us all run around and be very silly.

“With comedy, especially this one, timing is such an important issue, so you need to make sure that not just the word, but the physical comedy is completely tight. There’s certainly a lot of comedy in the words, there’s a lot of fun to be had there. But it’s also coupled with this glorious comedy that’s come out of the work we’ve been doing on the floor, which should be heaps of fun for the audience. It’s really kind of wonderful.”

[A Flea In Her Ear photo by James Green]

A Flea In Her EarrunsMonday October 31 – Saturday December 17 at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

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