BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
It was the question everyone working in theatre lives to hear: “How would you like to be in a Broadway show?” Nicola Cavendish was about to star in a Canadian production of Educating Rita when she received the call from director Brian Bedford. The 35-year-old actress immediately dropped everything, left husband and dog at home in Vancouver, and headed for the bright lights.
The role was a small one: that of the psychic housemaid in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, a play that hadn’t been seen in New York since its debut there in 1941. The Coward estate had been holding out for a cast it considered suitably stellar. Cavendish acknowledged it was “somewhat regressive for me to take on a tiny role that maybe I would have done five or six years ago.” But, she told me, it became a matter of deciding what the role might bring in terms of future opportunities. “The idea of being part of a Broadway show was very appealing.”
Whatever the appeal, the show – featuring such American screen luminaries as Richard Chamberlain, Geraldine Page and Blythe Danner – was in trouble right from the start. Director Bedford was blamed for an unsuccessful four-week tryout in Baltimore, and replaced before the show got to New York. The Broadway opening was then delayed four weeks to give replacement director Brian Murray a chance to patch things up. “It feels like a great big dinosaur that refuses to be born,” said Cavendish. “We’ve been in rehearsals and previews for 11 weeks.”
I spoke to her in New York while the show doing its final previews, a day before it was due to open in April 1987. Aside from dealing with the usual pre-opening jitters, Cavendish was also on edge because she had her pocket picked while she stood in line at a hot-dog stand in Times Square. “It made me want to go back home instantly,” she said. “Can you believe I’ve got no ID down here, no proof of who I am?”
She told me she felt badly for director Bedford, who had dispensed with the standard audition and hired her for Blithe Spirit on the strength of what he had seen Cavendish do over the course of two seasons at the Shaw Festival. Shaw artistic director Christopher Newton had said that “without a doubt, Nicola is on the level of someone like Maggie Smith. She can go either way, comedy or drama.”
Bedford had given the Blithe Spirit actors what Cavendish regarded as some very useful notes about the motivation of the characters in this lighter-than-air fantasy about a man who courts disaster with his second wife when he contacts the spirit of his deceased first wife. But ultimately Bedford had been defeated by the giant-sized egos of his stars. “The show didn’t really have a shape because he wasn’t taking the reins enough,” said Cavendish. “He wasn’t really getting the show to where it has to be.”
The show had given Cavendish a rare opportunity to see at close range how the American star system works. As a Canadian, she was used to a production process where actors big and small endeavoured to serve the text and find the truth in what the playwright had written. In New York, the big actors merely did their star turns and milked their exit lines for maximum applause.
“The stars can do no wrong, which doesn’t say much for the audience,” Cavendish told me. “This may seem strange to say, but I hope the critics are honest. I must have something restored in terms of my faith in what theatre should be about. There are certain choices being made in this show that I think are terribly wrong. I personally don’t think the full potential of the piece is being realized. Some of it is more about the funny mannerisms and eccentricities of Geraldine Page (playing Madame Arcati, the medium) than it is about doing what the playwright indicates in terms of that character.”
As it turned out, the reviewers panned Page and the other American stars for their inability to find the light touch that would have made Blithe Spirit take flight. But they praised Cavendish’s performance. “She is adorable as the maid, one of the choicest in Coward’s repertoire of small roles,” said The New York Times.
Cavendish didn’t stick around for long to bask in the glow of her good reviews. In June 1987, just two months after Blithe Spirit opened, she did the unthinkable. She phoned up the producers of the CBC television series The Beachcombers and successfully persuaded them to hire her for an episode so she would have a good excuse to leave New York. “They have a different way of acting down there,” she told The Globe and Mail. “The stars have to play what their image is. Richard (Chamberlain) was himself on stage and so was Geraldine (Page). Because I wasn’t anybody, I got to play Edith the maid. I figured that if this was The Great White Way, I’d be better off at home. I think the star system in the United States is a tremendous burden.”
After her disappointment over the Broadway treatment of Blithe Spirit, Cavendish welcomed the opportunity to appear in a Vancouver Playhouse production of the play in November 1989. This time, she was playing Madame Arcati, but without the funny mannerisms and eccentricities of Geraldine Page. “Close at times to going over the top,” wrote Lloyd Dykk in the Vancouver Sun. “Cavendish knows just when to pull back and fall in line with the rest of the cast.” While Cavendish received the lion’s share of the applause, Dykk wrote, the others in the cast rose to the occasion with a succession of witty performances that made the entire production soar.
Her performance as Madame Arcati reaffirmed Cavendish’s status as a star of the Vancouver stage. Her next stage role, in Willy Russell’s monologue Shirley Valentine, made her a star across Canada. She first played it in 1990, when she was 37, and toured it intermittently by popular demand over the next 22 years. Whenever a theatre in Winnipeg, Victoria, Toronto or Calgary needed a box office boost, it would book Cavendish’s Shirley Valentine and the tickets would start selling like popsicles in summer.
Cavendish did her last Shirley Valentine in the summer of 2012 when she was 59. She reflected on how her interpretation of the role of the restless Liverpool housewife had evolved over the years. In the beginning, she had seen it as a play about escape, about a woman running away to Greece to shake off the shackles of household drudgery and a joyless marriage. In 2012, after suffering a brain hemorrhage and dealing with her husband’s unexpected death at age 63, Cavendish saw it as more of a play about mortality. “The understanding of what it means to be alive one minute and dead the next literally informs this play,” Cavendish told the Winnipeg Free Press. “It’s important I hear its message.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.