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.
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.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.
A compendium of dramatic intelligence!
Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.
Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …