For some reason, last week Noel Coward seemed to be everywhere last week. He looms particularly large at the start of Michael Billington’s new blockbuster State of the Nation, while it was reported in a number of papers that Sir Winston Churchill personally blocked a knighthood for Noel Coward because he disapproved of the playwright’s flamboyant lifestyle. In the middle of all this, there is the National’s new revival of his 1939/42 play Present Laughter.
Written only months before the outbreak of World War Two and first staged three years later, Present Laughter invites the audience into a few days in the hectic life of Gary Essendine (Alex Jennings), a louche, amoral, philandering theatre star, very much in the model of Coward himself, albeit re-worked as a promiscuous heterosexual.
The play opens with a pretty young thing emerging, very pleased with herself, from Essendine’s spare room having spent the night. As housekeeper and secretary arrive it becomes obvious that she is a long way from being an unusual occurrence. Essendine’s ex-wife turns up. As do his financiers. Essendine surfaces from his slumber. All this is conducted largely through quip, aphorism and one-liner. It is the essence of ‘light’. Or at least it ought to be.
It would be unkind and unfair to say that the funniest thing about this new production is that the National have chosen Howard Davies to direct it. But he is a pretty rum decision: Davies is not known primarily for his sense of humour. He might be a really funny guy in civilian life, but as a director his metier is heavy, often depressing naturalism. And it appears to have been a hard habit to break here. There is a sense that the actors have really done some work finding the “emotional truths” of their characters. And, while I deeply dislike casting according to physical charm, it would not be unkind to say that this is an unusually unglamorous cast for a Coward play. It’s an interesting experiment - to attempt to play such superficial froth as if it had been written in 19th century Russia - but one which yields mixed results.
Tim Hatley’s set reflects these dual urges toward naturalism and artifice with a gaudy false-perspective turquoise room, with a detailedly damp-afflicted ceiling. That one of the characters remarks that one of their chief roles in Essendine’s life is to stop letting him buy new/more houses, this seems a false note to strike. Essendine is clearly intended to be far wealthier than this set suggests. He is not, far all, a faded member of Russian bourgeoisie, but a spectacularly successful actor in ‘30’s London. Conversely, where the naturalistic approach really pays off is in the usually trivial subplot that Coward throws in far ultra-light relief (for when the usual lightness all gets a bit, what? heavy?) - the antics of Roland Maule, a would-be playwright of unusual uselessness, who has become obsessed with Essendine.
In more traditional productions, Maule is a straw man quickly dispatched with a few witty remarks. Here, although by far the most to-type act on show, when he and Essendine discuss his play, and Essendine lets rip with a series of catty attacks on the putative script, we wonder for the first time whether he has got it right. Of course Coward was lashing out against all manner of playwrights of whose work he disapproved, but here Davies somehow subtly undermines the watertight argument Coward has constructed against his foes, and briefly Maule sounds like he might be a wholly credible writer whose work very definitely deserves a wider public. (indeed, hearing a Coward-cipher inveighing against “no plot, no character, no psychological depth” on the Lyttleton stage only months after Attempts on Her Life briefly makes you wonder what on earth Coward would have made of it).
Davies’s production, almost as if trying to justify public subsidy being lavished on mere “fun”, also places the play in the context of its conception: Essendine sitting alone in his flat, playing the piano with the wireless on in the background, listens to the announcement that war has been declared. It’s a strange decision, since having heard it, neither he nor any of the other characters feel move to comment on the fact that war has broken out.
However, for all this seriousness, the play still manages to achieve a consistent atmosphere of fun. As a hymn to the fun of amoral seduction, betrayal of one’s friends, and an ineffable sense that one should do exactly as one pleases and to hell with the consequences, it is pretty hard to beat.