Who is the real Coward?

Two new productions of Noël Coward's plays are coming to London. One is a crowd-pleaser, the other a 'difficult' unfinished work. Radical or reactionary? Philip Hoare investigates
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Intermittently on display in the National Portrait Gallery is a bronze life mask of Noël Coward. Cast by Paul Hamann during the London run of Private Lives in 1930, it gives the most accurate sense of the man's physical presence at the height of his powers. The features are set magisterially: hair scraped back off a high forehead, a blunt nose, the tapering eyes which gave an increasingly oriental look, and an almost non-existent, resolutely stiff upper lip. Yet deep lines already course the playwright's face (prompting St John Ervine to note in 1937 that "neurosis and incipient TB have helped give him that curious old look he has"). When I was writing Coward's biography in the early Nineties, I used to troop along to the NPG and stand in front of the sculpture, as if to commune with my subject. What amazed me then – and still does – was that strange sense of aged youth. To me, those etched lines were evidence of a deep and determined survival.

Coward, like the Queen Mother, his coeval, marched in tandem with the last century, witness to its changing fashions and society. And just as that game old dear has managed to make it to the 21st, so two new productions on the West End stage seem to prove that her gin-drinking chum has survived, too. Howard Davies is directing a new Private Lives, adventurously cast with Lindsay Duncan as Amanda and Alan Rickman as Elyot: two brooding, sexually-charged stage presences set to spark up Coward's proven crowd-pleaser. And Chris Luscombe has "reconstructed" Star Quality, Coward's last attempt (the play was begun, but not finished, in 1967) to prove his talent to amuse, with Penelope Keith as Lorraine Barrie – a sort of amalgam of Tallulah Bankhead and Gertrude Lawrence. Quite by chance, these two productions bookend Coward's career: one from the very peak of the fame that Harmann's life mask celebrates; the other, a ghostly reminder, in his dying days of creativity, of what he had achieved.

The plays seem to confirm a pattern to Coward's posthumous career. Earlier this year Shaftesbury Avenue housed a similar brace of Cowards: Prowse's equally decadent staging of the Master's overtly gay Semi-Monde (proscribed from performance in his lifetime); and Michael Rudman's Fallen Angels, in which Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour delighted less demanding audiences with their drunken comedy of frustrated would-be adulterers. With the casting of "radical" actors in the classic Private Lives, and the perennial charm of Keith in the "undiscovered" Star Quality, Davies and Luscombe are both neatly reversing the roles, and at the same time underlining our need for two Noël Cowards.

One is the Saturday matinee coach-party pleaser, guaranteed to massage the weak-beating heart of the West End with sure-fire audiences. This tendency to banality led me to write about Coward, spurred on by the final travesty of Joan Collins's Private Lives in which the Dynasty starlet did the splits onstage. Then there's the radicalised, sexualised Coward, sourced back to Philip Prowse's icy, Eighties revival of The Vortex with Rupert Everett and Maria Aitken in Coward's toy-boy and coke addict succès de scandale. In 1994, Sean Mathias's Design for Living at the Donmar introduced Rachel Weisz to the London stage in a memorable opening scene, rubbing herself up and down with an ice cube; and in 1999, Philip Franks's intelligent working of Private Lives at the National set Juliet Stevenson stomping across the stage to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

In this ongoing battle for the Master's reputation, the Coward camps take their opposing sides. The traditionalists fervently support the cosy, "little eggy-something-on-a-tray" Coward circa Brief Encounter; the stalwart reactionary who declared, in 1965, "I am England, and England is me". The revisionists, conversely, champion the once Bright Young Thing as a pre-Angry Young Man; for them Coward's sexual subtext is to be sought out and ruthlessly brought to the surface. Like the earnest young Roland Maule, the playwright from Uckfield who comes to plague Garry Essendine – Coward's dramatic alter ego in Present Laughter – they want him to rise above the superficiality, as Maule exhorts his hero: "All you do with your talent is to wear dressing gowns and make witty remarks when you might be really helping people, making them think! Making them feel!"

Of course, as another playwright not above swishing about in dressing gowns remarked, the truth is never pure and seldom simple; and Coward, as the achingly self-referential Present Laughter indicated, employed his own iconography in a way which no one had done since Wilde. He mediated and commodified "Noël Coward" for his global audience. Adeptly propagating his image, Coward refused to be pigeon-holed as the darling of either camp.

As sleek and slippery as his brilliantined coiffure, that elusiveness infuriated his critics. Having outraged the reactionary Establishment and pleased left-wing commentators with his critiques of high society such as The Vortex and Easy Virtue, he then delighted the right-wingers and confounded the radicals with his apparently jingoistic Cavalcade, which the likes of Sean O'Casey and Beverley Nichols misread as a mere flag-waving exercise.

Now, perhaps, we are seeing the pendulum swing back. Directors such as Prowse, Mathias, Franks, and now Howard Davies and Chris Luscombe seek the seriousness behind Coward's seemingly light-as-a-feather plays. They see Private Lives as a tragi-comedy, pivoting on a pair of egos made dysfunctional by a dysfunctional era; the love-triangle of Design for Living as an acute delineation of the Thirties equivalent of modern yuppies; and the prima donna of Star Quality – a cypher of her times, and of her own creator: "It all depends on what performance she is putting on for herself at the moment," says Coward in his original short story. "What really goes on, what is really happening deep down inside, no one will ever know – least of all herself."

Coward's rather surprising contemporary success is precisely due to his elusiveness, and his ability to be all things to all people. He was a gay playwright who wrote with deep intuition of heterosexual emotion; a suburban boy who started life in London's less salubrious boroughs yet claimed royalty and aristocrats as friends; an apparent dyed-in-the-wool patriot who railed against nascent apartheid when he experienced it in South Africa in 1944; a cocktail-swilling hedonist who actually liked nothing better than an early night reading E Nesbit. His greatest talent was not only to amuse, but to annoy, confound and provoke – as it still is. Like the ectoplasmic Elvira in Blithe Spirit, it seems the West End stage is destined to be haunted by its most accomplished practitioner of the last century.

Philip Hoare's biography of Noel Coward is about to be republished; 'Private Lives' previews from Fri at the Albery Theatre, London, 020-7369 1740; 'Star Quality' is currently on tour and is coming to London at the end of October