Noel Coward left a lasting legacy on British theatre, and his mastery of drama, emotion and romance are seen clearly in Volcano, a play never performed during his lifetime. The play offers perspectives upon Englishmen’s lives and loves far removed from British soil, focusing upon their domestic trials on the fictional British Colonial archipelago Samolo in 1958. The play in many ways mirrors Coward’s own life and that of his contemporaries in Jamaica (where he lived). The geographical and romantic landscapes of Coward and his own guests are represented in Volcano, where the stifling heat of paradise soon proves too much to bear.
The play centres upon the ever-shifting relations of the central protagonists and their corresponding spouses. Widow Adela Shelley’s affair with Guy Littleton Jenny Seagrove and Jason Durr respectively) is bound up in complex emotional turmoil worsened by the arrival of Guy’s wife. However, the stale marriage of Adela’s friends Ellen and Keith also worsens the atmosphere as Ellen’s designs upon Guy become increasingly clear. As each character clashes, emotions erupt, alongside the volcano under which they reside, into a frenzy of heated exchange, physical violence and desperate panic. It is only the next morning when the strange and surprising events partially, and craftily, unravel.
The imaginative set (Simon Scullion) conveys the rich tones of the tropics successfully. Conch shells line the walls, thick grasses protrude through bamboo panels whilst a winding, sharply inclined path cuts across the back of the stage to reveal the harsh terrain of volcanic rock which overshadows the idyllic condo and its unsuspecting inhabitants.
This is a homespun drama which centres upon love feuds rattling the otherwise calm and conservative worlds of the middle classes. Through the haze of cigarette smoke and the droll dialogue of brandy-swilling lovers comes a rich array of emotion, action and thought. The sharp, witty dialogue quickens into heated exchanges which, alongside the portentous employment of pathetic fallacy, reaches an abrupt yet intense climax. However, the difference in Volcano is featured clearly in its very title. It is Mother Nature’s undeniable presence which is asserted, far superior and more deadly than the trivial quarrels of human nature. As the volcano above the party darkens the sky and interrupts the fights with deafening rumbles, humans, love and the environment in which they exist are linked and intertwined to almost supernatural effect.
The progression and development of character emotion throughout the play’s course is pleasingly and surprisingly sophisticated. Roy Marsden directs Coward’s play with a conscious recognition of the significance of the appearance, indulgence and decay of relations between lovers and friends. This results in tense, dramatic moments on stage. The play begins in medias res, with a passionate kiss, and it ends decisively with a steely glance, a cold, unresolved conflict and the isolation of Adela. Although littered with light-hearted frivolity, the undercurrents of Volcano repeatedly crack the surface; social niceties are filled with jealous and deceitful detail. Coward explores the inner workings of a physical and emotional ‘paradise’, drawing perceptive, poignant and unexpected conclusions.
Volcano is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 9 June. For more information and tickets, see the Richmond Theatre website.