Andrew Scott and Indira Varma at the Old Vic
Photo by Manuel Harlan
027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward
Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. His social and professional diary is forever full, he enjoys the adulation and frequently amorous attention of his fans, and he employs a retinue of staff to maintain his household and career. But the insistent pressures of his life in the spotlight are taking their toll. His wife has moved out, and although she and his long-serving manager and producer continue to work together to sustain his career, as he passes the age of forty his unrestrained excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life.
Garry Essendine’s tussle with fame is the subject of Noël Coward’s classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter, in which the role of the ego-centrical actor is made in Coward’s own celebrity image. In fact Coward himself played the part in the original production in 1942, and over many revivals since the role has attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019.
Noël Coward is of course one of the most famous playwrights and performers in the history of theatre, not only writing and starring in a string of hits such as Hay Fever, Design for Living, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, but also in the process inventing the image of himself as the consummate gentleman of style and wit, and becoming one of the first truly modern celebrities.
His plays were made in his image, what he labelled light comedies, portraying an artificial, brilliant world of privilege that he imagined and inhabited. It is a world that has certainly vanished for real, as well as from the stage, swept away by drama that reflects then fragmented modern world we live in. So why is his work still revived? What does Present Laughter have to say to 21st century audiences? Or as Coward himself might have put it: does it have to say something, is it not enough that it entertains?
Helping me to address these question, I am joined by a true Coward aficionado, theatrical agent Alan Brodie. Not only does Alan represent the Coward Estate in licensing Coward’s work for publication and performance, he is Chairman of the Noël Coward Foundation which continues Noël Coward’s charitable work by supporting educational and development projects across the Arts.
Alan Brodie graduated from Edinburgh University with a combined Arts/Law degree and spent a brief time apprenticing as a lawyer before giving it up and heading to London to work as an assistant for Michael Imison Playwrights. In 1997 he launched his own theatrical agency Alan Brodie Representation Ltd, which works with contemporary playwrights such as Emma Rice, Tim Firth, David Edgar, and Anne Devlin, to name but a few, as well as with authors’ trusts and estates, that include in addition to the Noël Coward Estate some of the greatest names in 20th century drama, such as Terence Rattigan, Thornton Wilder, Bertolt Brecht, Emlyn Williams, Patrick Hamilton, Peter Nichols, C.P.Taylor, and George Kaufman.
Alan is Chairman of The Noël Coward Foundation, a Trustee of Chichester Festival Theatre and an Ambassador for Acting For Others. During the Covid lockdown he produced the Noël Coward online entertainment A Marvellous Party, in aid of Acting For Others (UK) and the Actors Fund (US). He is also organising a major exhibition, Noel Coward: Art & Style, which opens at the Guildhall Art Gallery on June 14.
Alan recommended Sucker Punch by Roy Williams.
The Footnotes to our episode on Present Laughter include thoughts on the real Garry Essendine, and the morality of the amorous liaisons that they all prosecute.
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Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of race, reputation and jealousy, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a popular success when it was first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it has provoked a wide range of responses as successive generations have grappled with the racial identity of the eponymous character. As we record this episode a new production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London views the play’s treatment of race through a contemporary lens, setting the play within the London Metropolitan police force, a topical environment for racial inspection.
I am privileged to welcome as my guest someone especially qualified to help us navigate the tricky waters of Shakespeare’s play, Farah Karim-Cooper, Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College London, and the author of The Great White Bard – Shakespeare, Race and the Future.
Ken Nwosu as Othello and Ralph Davies as Iago
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo by Johan Persson
Harold Pinter’s disturbing exploration of toxic masculinity and sexual maneuvering, The Homecoming premiered in 1965. The play’s portrait of misogyny, and even more disturbing, the apparent female complicity, was shocking at the time it was written. Nearly 60 years on the sexual politics is if anything even more difficult to watch. So what was Pinter’s purpose in presenting such a provocative piece, and how do we process it in the post Me-Too age?
I am joined by Matthew Dunster, the director of a scintillating new production of the play at the Young Vic in London, who can help us answer those questions about Pinter’s challenging classic.
Lisa Diveney as Ruth at the Young Vic – photo by Dean Chalkley.
Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts provoked outrage when it was published in 1881, its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia too much for the critics. More than 140 years later its portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy remains as powerful as ever.
Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps us review Ibsen’s unflinching drama.
Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London, December 2023. Photo by Marc Brenner.