The Vortex: ‘I wanted to see if you could do Coward with Irish accents’

Five years ago, funding cuts sent director Annabelle Comyn spinning – but her path towards Noël Coward was an unlikely twist


Five years ago, if you had drawn up a list of the Irish directors least likely to direct a Noël Coward play, Annabelle Comyn might have made your top 10. Since 2004, Comyn had established herself as a director routinely drawn to material that was bracing and contemporary: the psychological chillers and formal challenge of Martin Crimp; arresting dramas about place and identity by David Greig and Zinnie Harris; the abstract and unsettling confrontations of Caryl Churchill and Dennis Kelly.

Coward, on the other hand, was a summertime staple of the Gate Theatre, synonymous with upper-crust elocution, precious witticisms and protagonists exiting the fray on tiptoe. Comyn seemed more sure-footed.

But in 2009, during hefty cuts to Irish independent theatre and the emergence of radical new funding policies, everything went into a spin. Within a year, Comyn’s Hatch Theatre Company dropped from a grant of €90,000 to €20,000, and subsequent project applications received no funding at all. “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding,” she recalls. “And actually I came to see it as an opportunity.”

Decadence, venom and addiction
It was a brutally stark challenge – adapt or die – which made Comyn’s next project seem all the more unlikely. She began to workshop a version of a Noël Coward play laced with decadence, venom and addiction, which the playwright wrote, funded, directed, produced and performed as a 24-year-old. It was the making of him. From her own uncertainty, this is how Annabelle Comyn stepped into The Vortex .

“I wanted to see if you could do Coward with Irish accents, basically,” she recalls of her 2010 workshop version in Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, where she was an artist in association as part of Project’s Catalyst. Her experiment reduced the original play’s 10 characters down to just three: Nicky, a young composer deep in denial and cocaine addiction, who returns home with his fiancee, Bunty, to meet his self-absorbed mother, Florence, an ageing socialite who is having an affair with Bunty’s ex.

Something about this small bohemian elite and their extravagant, toxic lifestyle resonated with Comyn’s view of a bankrupt nation after the party. “I was curious: could it be given a contemporary feel while retaining it in its period?” Her workshop never got to full production, but Comyn never gave up on The Vortex . In fact, her approach to Coward has been responsible for her greatest successes since, in which she has brought a vigorously contemporary perspective to period dramas.

In her Abbey stage debut, in 2011, she electrified Shaw’s Pygmalion , matching its comedy with something more brutal. The following year, she gave Tom Murphy’s The House , set in 1950s Ireland, as much menace as the sorrow of dispossession and received The Irish Times Irish Theatre Award for best director. Next, she folded 1940s New York into 1920s Dublin in Emma Donoghue’s Talk of the Town for Hatch, Landmark and the Dublin Theatre Festival, and last year traced a modernist severity in the ideas of Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Abbey.

Sitting now in the huge window of an ornate green room, she considers her very different production of The Vortex which is now running in the Gate Theatre. “The play looks at a fear of being obsolete,” she says. “And I wanted to put it on at a time when I was most terrified of that.”

Pygmalion breakthrough
Comyn can laugh about it now, but during two years without work as a director, she and her husband considered emigrating. “I got great strength from my dad,” she says. “He was always a very hard critic. Very tough when he didn’t think things were worth pursuing. He was adamant I should persist. And I’d been at it long enough. What else was I to do?”

If Comyn’s breakthrough was Pygmalion , she might not have attempted it were it not for The Vortex . “I was kind of terrified and very tempted by it,” she says of her reaction when Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the production at the Abbey. Sitting at home in her kitchen with her designer, Paul O’Mahony, they resolved to treat it like a Hatch production. “Otherwise, I might have been intimidated by what I felt their expectations were, which probably weren’t their expectations at all. Ultimately we realised we needed to go at this play as we would any play.”

That conviction may be what has made The Vortex seem like a similar revelation: a jazz age “shocker” seen from a daring new angle. Comyn, now one of a handful of directors who can work with an independent company and at both the Abbey and the Gate, would have staged her original version in the round, but O’Mahony’s circular set honours that intention, spinning the play’s dark energy inwards, like a centrifuge. In sharp contrast to Coward’s own famous instruction to actors (“Learn the lines and don’t bump into the furniture”), Comyn would tell her cast, “Don’t worry, you can turn your back.”

“Fundamentally, what interests me in plays is how humanity works,” Comyn says. “It always has been.” That is refreshingly true of The Vortex , where Coward’s epigrams come second place to the people speaking them. Instead, Comyn wanted to concentrate on a toxic co-dependency between a mother and son at the heart of the play, letting her audience peep in on it. “It’s obsessive,” she says. “It’s almost habit-forming. The play is very strongly about addiction, but not just in its simplest forms. That’s what The Vortex is: it felt like they need to feed off each other.” That seems like the fitting conclusion for a director’s eventful and sustaining journey into The Vortex : to tell it, finally, with a twist.

The Vortex is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until March 22

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