I'm so very revived these days, my dear: Why Noël Coward is back in fashion
Very fashionable, Coward. And suddenly so very contemporary, with productions simply all over the place.
Sunday 19 September 2010
His plays belong to the jazz age, full of the wit, sophistication and, some critics claim, shallowness of the roaring 1920s and decadent 1930s.
Yet Noël Coward – who, with his clipped upper-class accent and cigarette holder, cut a dash as the archetypal Englishman – is back with a string of revivals running or planned for New York and London.
Design for Living opened to rave reviews in London last week; while the actress Alison Steadman has just begun rehearsing for Blithe Spirit, which will open in London early next year. Later this month, the Olivier-award-winning actress Celia Imrie will star in Hay Fever at Sir Peter Hall's Rose Theatre in Kingston; Private Lives, which starred Kim Cattrall in London earlier this year, is transferring to Broadway, as is Kneehigh theatre's acclaimed version of Brief Encounter.
In his heyday before the Second World War Coward was a huge star on both sides of the Atlantic. He wrote more than 50 plays and 400-odd songs, including "Mad About the Boy" and "Mad Dogs and Englishmen", which have become standards. He was also a successful actor, often appearing in his own plays.
After the war his fame endured, but his plays seemed facile next to the gritty new realism of John Osborne, or against Samuel Beckett's intellectual depth.
When he died in 1973, aged 73, he was a figure from a different age, although his 70th birthday concert had seen more than 200 stars line up to pay tribute to him.
Now fans and producers say modern sensibilities are bringing a new appreciation to the full complexity of Coward's work – often about sexual morality and society's double standards – that was overlooked at the time.
"Design for Living has a lot to say about ways of living a life. It shows you can be moral and have principles without them being the normal principles of society," its producer Nica Burns said.
"I think there's a new audience for Coward. In the last three years there's been a renaissance," added Ms Burns, who is also president of the Society of London Theatre.
The play, a risqué 1932 comedy about a ménage à trois which was banned in the UK until 1939, is enjoying its first revival in 15 years.
"Society has changed radically in the last 10 years. Coward is incredibly complicated, and acting has become very naturalistic; but with a technical ability you can bring out the rhythm in Coward in a modern way, and that brings out the modernism in the plays," Ms Burns added.
John Knowles, chairman of the Noël Coward Society, maintains the Coward revival started 10 years ago and has gathered steam since.
"Felicity Kendal was in The Vortex in 2008," he said. "I don't think there's a minute in the day when there isn't a Coward play on somewhere in the world. Amateur theatres have very much kept him going. I went to see Design for Living and it's very modern, so much more than just witty. I saw Private Lives done by four young people and they really brought the sensuality out of it. His plays are being reinterpreted in so many ways and their freshness is being revealed."
The veteran theatre director Sir Peter Hall, who directed Kendal in The Vortex, added: "Coward is very witty and gets hold of an audience and does marvellous things on stage."
Design for Living
Written in 1932 as a star vehicle for his friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, as well as Coward himself, Design for Living is about three people – two men and one woman – who decide they cannot live without each other. Its provocative subject matter was shocking at the time, and there is suspicion it is based on the relationship the three enjoyed before they became famous. "As happy a spectacle of surface skating as one might see," said The New York Sun.
Novelist Charles Condomine gets more than he expected when he asks medium Madame Arcati (to be played by Alison Steadman) to conduct a séance. She summons the spirit of his dead wife, who is unhappy at his new marriage. Ran for a record 1,997 performances on its 1941 debut.
Celia Johnson is the married woman who falls for doctor Trevor Howard after meeting him at a railway station, but must sacrifice her passion to middle-class duty. Directed by David Lean and scripted by Coward, the 1945 film remains one of the most popular British movies of all time.
A classic plot – still stolen, notably by the US sitcom Frasier – in which a divorced couple find they are honeymooning with their new spouses in adjacent hotel rooms. Its 1930 London debut starred Coward and Laurence Olivier and it has, some critics claim, a gay subtext. "So slight as to be non-existent," the Times Literary Supplement said of the plot.
A country-house farce which debuted in 1925. The four members of the Bliss family each invite a friend for the weekend without informing the others. Their ensuing rows cause the guests to leave, unnoticed by the bickering Blisses.
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