Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Alex Sutton: A Flea In Her Ear

By | Published on Wednesday 23 March 2016


George Feydeau’s highly successful 1907 farce ‘A Flea In Her Ear’ is probably regarded as his greatest work, so I was pleased to hear that a production of the play is to be staged at London’s Tabard Theatre. What I didn’t immediately realise is that this is a brand new adaptation, and that it will feature a rather small cast taking on a lot of different roles.

To find out more about the play, the playwright, this new adaptation and the inspiration behind it, I put some questions to the director and creative force behind it, experienced theatre, film and opera creative Alex Sutton.

CM: For anyone who isn’t familiar with the play, can you tell us what it’s about?
AS: The play is a Parisian farce set in 1900. Essentially It is about the suspicions of a very wealthy socialite called Raymonde who gets a bee in her bonnet (A flea in her ear!) because she thinks her husband is having an affair because they haven’t had sex for about two days! Instead of confronting her husband, Raymonde concocts an elaborate scheme to try and catch her husband out, which of course goes disastrously wrong. It is a fast paced comedy about social class, sexual frustration, mistaken identity and the importance of communication!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Georges Feydeau?
AS: Feydeau was a prolific and celebrated writer of plays in the late 1800s and early 20th century in Paris. In the early 1900s – during La Belle Epoque – Parisians would flock to see his farces or go to see a cabaret. He had a bit of a monopoly on popular theatre! ‘Flea’ was written fifteen years before he died, and is generally acknowledged as the greatest of his works. Most theatre historians would regard his oeuvre as a forerunner of absurdist theatre, and the more experimental forms that appeared later in the century.

CM: What made you want to do a production of this particular show?
AS: I first came across ‘Flea’ on one of the play lists for the JMK directing award. Everything else on that list was so dry, and I remember almost not entering as I just couldn’t get interested in the project; however, I then read the Feydeau and completely fell in love with it. I loved how utterly bonkers it was, and also, having come form a musical theatre, pantomime and clowning background, I was blown away at how Feydeau seemingly had created all the rules we still use today. I had the idea I’m working on now, back then, but it’s taken until now to fully develop it and get it on its feet… well… falling over…

CM: This is a new adaptation, isn’t it – how does it differ from the original? Who created it?
AS: Yes it is. It was my idea to do it, but Sacha Bush (who adapted the play) and I are extremely similar in our outlooks. We met and bonded at University over being brought up on ‘Spaced’, ”The Day Today’, Frank Sidebottom and re-runs of ‘Blackadder’, ‘Faulty Towers’, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Girls on Top’.

When Simon at the Tabard asked me if there was anything I wanted to do, I pitched him this mad idea that you could theoretically do Flea with six actors rather than fifteen because (other than the last scene) there are never more than 6 people on stage at any one time. Doing it with six people would also mean a ridiculous amount of doubling roles, and having more than one actor play the same part.

When he agreed to do it, Sacha and I went back to the original French play to do a literal translation to see what Feydeu was really doing (rather than rely on the English translations that already exist). We were hugely surprised at how blunt and direct he was. The English versions seem to cover up a lot of the rather blatant sexual references and replace them with innuendo, so immediately that caught our interest as that hasn’t really been a hallmark of what we would call farce in this country.

One of my favourite parts of the new translation was the dramaturgy of it. I am fascinated by the current vogue of people taking song lyrics and putting them through internet translation programs several times to see what happens when you re-translate them into English. For example a famous lyric “you came in like a wrecking ball” comes out as ” I like the ball in the sink”. This was key for us I think, and so we put the play through several translators to see what each one would make of the French. I tell you now, they really have a problem with the name Raymonde and gender pronouns. There was quite a lot of hilarious but incomprehensible stuff in there, but it formed the basis of the new version. What better way of accessing and creating a world where men, women, upper class, lower class and sexuality are completely fluid than seeing this technological confusion. I love that technology can’t quite cope with Feydeau.

That said, we knew we wanted to stick as close as possible to Feydeau’s original in terms of structure because it is so intricately plotted. There are quite a lot of similar characters so we wanted to give each of them their own unique identity. By playing about with accents and how they codify social class (especially in this country) we were able to find new ways of presenting some of the less memorable characters. I think our version will be more clear in that respect, however, most of the characters in the show are played by more than one actor, so sometimes it can be pretty funny just enjoying the interchangability, especially when an actress plays a man, or visa versa.

To place the show in the popular cabaret of Belle Epoque, I wanted to frame each show with accordion versions of current pop songs, however, when that idea fell foul of the rights and licensing committee, I asked my long time collaborator Eamonn O’Dwyer to write me an entirely original new score which evokes not only Paris, but highlights the absurdity and ridiculousness of the play. It’s an excellent addition to the show, and I now can’t ever imagine doing it the way I originally wanted to!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast?
AS: Dom Brewer was most recently in the UK tour of ‘The Lion King’ as Timon, and before that was in the Broadway transfer of ‘Twelfth Night’ with Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance. I’ve worked with Jamie Birkett before and she’s just been in a production of ‘Saucy Jack’. Rachel Dawson is a member of the Olivier Award nominated Les Enfants Terrible. My other actors – Clark James, Haley Catherine and Rich Watkins – are all recent, but exceptional, graduate – they are all hilarious and very, very different!

CM: Did you always want to be a director? How did you begin your career?
AS: Yes. I was a chorister when i was younger, and then played Friedrich in an amateur version of ‘The Sound of Music’. I remember getting bit restless even then (aged eleven with rehearsals and didn’t really like the repetition. The society I was a member of (BAOS in Somerset) had an emergency one year and lost a director, and I put myself forward but was laughed at. Within a year I was at university and directing plays, and within two I was assisting on opera professionally.

CM: What aims have you for the future?
AS: Lawks, so many aims; I think that’s one of my weaknesses, I have thousands of aims! I’m currently obsessed with Michael John LaChusia’s version of ‘The Wild Party’ and Anthony Neilson’s ‘Stitching’ and am trying to get productions of them off the ground. I have also just finished writing a screenplay based on Patrick Ness’s short story ‘Urban Christian Myths’ which I hope to shoot later this year, whilst writing a screenplay about a group of non professional a capella singers which is loosely based on my experiences singing with the Bristol University Madrigal Ensemble, but twenty years on! I also really want to go back to opera for a while because I really miss it.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
AS: I’ve just finished doing ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ in the West End, in 48 hours, with 120 people (including the amazing Anna Jane Casey) this weekend, and so when ‘Flea’ is up and running I may just sleep for the immediate future. I’ll be back directing at Mountview sometime in June, but I’ll also be back in the world of event management, waiting and mixology to make those London ends meet!

‘A Flea In Her Ear’ is on at the Tabard Theatre from 29 Mar-3 Apr. See this page here for more info and to book your tickets.