In the world of literature, love often seems to lead to murder, but what happens when the victim is a bed-bound war veteran? In many ways, Somerset Maugham’s The Sacred Flame is a classic murder mystery, leading us through a series of dramatic scenes as the evidence stacks up against the main suspect before the shocking truth is revealed in the final, not-so surprising twist. It’s also a play that raises puzzling, deep ethical questions about the sacrifices that a permanently disabled person and their friends and family have to make. Maugham’s play premiered in New York in 1928 and then came to London in 1929, before returning in 1967 with Gladys Cooper playing the matriarchal Mrs Tabret. Since then the play has slipped into the background, until director Mathew Dunster’s decision to stage a revival with English Touring Theatre. Having recently worked with the Pet Shop Boys and choreographer Javier de Frutos at Sadler’s Wells, directed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, based on Sillitoe’s novel, and staged his own play Children’s Children at the Almeida, Dunster’s versatility is striking, which perhaps makes his choice of Maugham’s 1920s murder mystery a little less surprising.
It’s easy to spot the challenges facing Dunster in updating The Sacred Flame to suit a modern audience. Dunster has kept occasional archaic-sounding lines to add humour, and although initially these sound strained it doesn’t take long for us to fully accept that this is the 1920s. What has been completely altered, though, is the set. We are presented with a modernist construction of crossing metal bars, transparent plastic doors and large off-white walls which look like concrete. It is an interesting decision, but the clash of eras between language and set confuses and disconcerts more than it provides a clean, uncluttered background on which to present the play for today’s audience.
There can be little doubt, though, that Dunster’s bold decision to revive The Sacred Flame has paid off. Maugham’s play is packed with heady emotional impact and incisive empathy which leaves our loyalties and ethics torn. We want to sympathise with the young, beautiful wife, Stella, and her impossible situation, while at the same time understanding the awfulness of taking another human life and the need for justice. This tension is well delivered, with particularly moving performances from Sarah Churm, as Nurse Wayland who obstinately seeks justice and the truth, and Beatriz Romilly as Stella, the young wife struggling to deal with the changes to her marriage brought by her husband’s accident. Mrs Tabret, the matriarch of the play, is played by Margot Leicester, who also gives a strong performance, although some lines sounded strained and unnatural.
Dunster’s staging of The Sacred Flame proves that old, almost forgotten works can be successfully revived and hold their strong emotional impact. Maugham is better known today for his novels, particularly The Painted Veil, recently transformed into a popular film, but the power of English Touring Theatre’s production proves that treasures can still be found in the back catalogue of English drama.
The Sacred Flame is at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until Saturday 22 September and then continues its national tour until 24 November, visiting the Northern Stage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Oxford Playhouse, The New Wolsey in Ipswich, the Liverpool Playhouse, Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, The Theatre Royal in Brighton, The Nuffield in Southampton and the Cambridge Arts Theatre. For more information and to book tickets, visit the English Touring Theatre website. Production image by Mark Douet.