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.
Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull was a disaster on its opening night in St Petersburg in 1896. The unsettling blend of comedy and pathos that confused the first critics and audience were subsequently recognised as seminal in the evolution of modern drama.
I’m delighted to welcome back playwright and professor, Dan Rebellato, to talk about Chekhov and his timeless play.
Patrick Marber’s play Closer depicts a merry-go-round of metropolitan relationships powered by sex and betrayal. Its clever and candid dissection of the destructive power of sexual desire hit a contemporary nerve when it premiered in 1997.
Clare Lizzimore, director of a new production at the Lyric Hammersmith, joins me to explore how the play’s unflinching sexual politics has aged twenty-five years later.
Jez Butterworth’s play Jersualem is one of the landmark plays of the 21st century, acclaimed for both its lyrical and elusive text exploring English identity, and for its electrifying theatrical production. The once-in-a lifetime performance is happily being repeated with the current West End revival, and it seems fitting that our 50th episode be devoted to this remarkable play. I’m joined by David Ian Rabey, Emeritus Professor at Aberystwyth University and author of The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth.