Why am I always expected to wear a dressing gown, smoke cigarettes in a long holder and say: Darling, how wonderful?
– Noel Coward
Ah, Noel. So terribly, terribly talented!
The recent Old Vic production of Present Laughter, with a brilliant central performance by Andrew Hot Priest Scott, was a reminder that Coward’s plays – for all his image as a louche dandy – are anything but froth.
Noel Coward’s precocious, prodigious and prolific output first hit home when, just 24, he wrote, produced and directed The Vortex. He played the lead, too. As Coward put it: A whacking great part in it for myself.
A success in London then New York, it was ahead of its time. Way ahead. Frightfully risqué, my dear!
The story of Nicky Lancaster and his mother, it deals with bi-sexuality, cocaine addiction and cougar love. It even has an Oedipal confrontation between the two, reminiscent of Hamlet and Gertrude (You cannot call it love/For at your age/The heyday in the blood is tame…).
Quite a debut. Yet Coward had been at it a long time. Born 2 weeks before the 20th century, he was practically raised onstage, an accomplished child actor by the age of 11.
He followed The Vortex with a string of highly original, hilarious yet serious, hits: Hay Fever, Private Lives and Design for Living.
Design for Living. Deliciously outré! A scintillating, subversive script about a love triangle. Written in 1932, it had to wait out censorship issues – a disgusting 3-sided erotic hotchpotch – for 7 years, before running in London for hundreds of performances.
Coward used his exquisitely crafted comedies to address controversial subjects.
It’s easy to see why some people find it hard to get beyond the clipped upper-class style. Like listening to a bunch of narcissists, talking like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Sheer torture, cherie!
Except, as soon as you see the plays (and revues, films and songs) you realise that – unlike that utter stinker Moggy – Coward has heart, brains, talent and an exceptional grasp of what makes things funny.
And no sense of entitlement. A suburban middle-class boy, he applied his gifts assiduously. A real grafter. Listening to him describe how disciplined he was in learning lines – a postcard over each speech, an awful drudgery, but I’m always word perfect at the first rehearsal – is a lesson in hard work paying off.
This triggered a recall of a more recent, example of an actor struggling to learn his lines. A priceless scene in Tarantino’s 2019 film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has Leonardo di Caprio’s character threaten to blow his own brains out if he doesn’t master the script!
I digress. Not all Coward’s early shows were hits. Sirocco – extra-marital affair in Italy – was fiercely booed at its London first night in 1927. Too, too frightful, darling! It closed after 3 weeks.
But still his Champagne coupe ranneth over. Coward bought a Rolls-Royce at 26 and a country house in Kent at 27 (Goldenhurst for the golden boy).
There he wrote Cavalcade (1931), a huge cast Boer War/death of Queen Victoria/World War One family saga – the start of his interest in patriotic themes. The Tories even claimed it helped them win the election, though Coward disowned that early bit of fake news.
Several of these lesser-known Coward pieces – Sirocco, Design for Living, Cavalcade – were staged by the Citizens’, Glasgow from the 1970’s onwards. The Vortex, Rupert Everett as Nicky, played Glasgow in 1988 and London the following year.
Most strikingly unperformed was Semi-Monde. Another huge cast. Coward wrote it in 1926, but the first production – ever – was by the Citizens’ in 1977, a sumptuous version of a seething social panorama, set in the Paris Ritz.
Coward’s patriotism grew. He won great acclaim for his film In Which We Serve. Though he aspired to join the war effort via the diplomatic service – or even as a spy – the powers-that-be preferred him as an entertainer to the troops.
And what an entertainer he became, well beyond the war. His smartly worded songs gave him a new cabaret career. Brilliantly comic numbers like Mad Dogs and Englishman and Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.
Meanwhile in theatre – though still writing, acting and producing – he seemed intolerant of the new forms of drama in the 1950’s. He railed against the angry young men and the grim patina of kitchen sinks and tramps.
Called out by John (Look Back in Anger) Osborne, Coward – far too smart to stay a curmudgeon for long – apologised for being vulgar and common.
But the enfant terrible risked turning into yesterday’s man. He would never, except in revivals, enjoy the astounding highs of his early theatrical career.
We’re luckily left with his brilliant output of plays which, in terms of structure, dialogue and piercing humour, still astound.
Will Coward’s plays – a bit like Shakespeare’s – become infinitely adaptable to the mood of the times? In the Old Vic Present Laughter, the original character Joanna becomes Joe, bringing bi-sexuality to the heart of the play.
As theatre in this century adopts greater gender (and racial) fluidity, with many actresses in once male roles and a much looser difference between the sexes, Coward’s legacy could turn out to be more than a talent to amuse.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, January 2020.
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