Se­ri­ous busi­ness of Coward’s com­edy

Noel Coward’s com­edy of bad man­ners, Fever, is com­ing to the stage. Arts re­porter Nick Ahad spoke to di­rec­tor Ian Brown.

Yorkshire Post - Culture & The Guide - - STAGE -

IAN Brown, the artis­tic di­rec­tor of the West York­shire Play­house, in Leeds, has a list of plays in his of­fice.

But this list is a per­sonal one and con­tains those plays and sto­ries that he wants to tell. A per­sonal hit list, if you like.

Near the top for some time has been Noel Coward’s Hay Fever.

“I saw it quite a long time ago in Ed­in­burgh and it re­ally struck me then. There was some­thing about the pre­cise­ness of the lan­guage. Then I saw a pro­duc­tion re­cently that I thought hadn’t got it quite right, and it lodged in my mind,” says Brown.

“I did Pri­vate Lives a few years ago in Ed­in­burgh and found it a real chal­lenge, which came as quite a sur­prise. I ex­pected it to be quite a light folly but it was much more chal­leng­ing than I had ex­pected. It’s ac­tu­ally made me quite ner­vous about do­ing this pro­duc­tion. I just thought it was time to give it a go.”

Brown’s mis­judg­ment about Coward when he first tack­led his work with Pri­vate Lives is eas­ily un­der­stand­able.

Alan Ben­nett once com­plained that he had not won the re­spect he might have had if he not felt com­pelled to write with a hu­mor­ous slant. Coward suf­fers a sim­i­lar fate.

“I think it’s be­cause it deals with quite priv­i­leged, posh peo­ple and their con­cerns,” says Brown.

“ When we see peo­ple like that on stage and their lives be­ing writ­ten about with hu­mour, for some rea­son we don’t al­ways give it as much re­spect as we should.”

Coward, while al­ways crit­i­cally re­spected, has tended to fall in and out of fashion. The foibles and frip­peries of the up­per class are not al­ways con­sid­ered to be de rigueur. Af­ter the­atre be­gan to fea­ture the kitchen sink, the con­cerns of those above stairs – where Coward’s gaze was cast – seemed out of date.

In the Nineties, we had In Yer Face the­atre, a style with which Brown, the first man to di­rect Trainspot­ting on stage, is fa­mil­iar. Dur­ing that decade, the­atre­go­ers were watch­ing heroin ad­dicts in­ject each other, sol­diers eat­ing ba­bies.

Coward’s come­dies of man­ners – an ac­tress fail­ing to rise for break­fast with her guest, shock, horror! – could no longer cut the mus­tard. Or so we thought.

Brown says: “Plays like The Vor­tex and Pri­vate Lives have far more depth, and deal with more com­plex is­sues than au­di­ences might per­haps re­alise.”

Hay Fever fea­tures one of the few bril­liant parts in the­atre that ex­ist for women.

Ju­dith Bliss is a re­tired ac­tress who, af­ter a string of suc­cess­ful roles, has moved out of the city to her coun­try re­treat. She soon be­comes bored, the coun­try­side an in­ad­e­quate re­place­ment for the thrill of recog­ni­tion and fame she re­ceives in the city.

For en­ter­tain­ment she in­vites a fan to her home for a week­end of un­in­ter­rupted ado­ra­tion, but lit­tle does she know that the rest of her fam­ily has com­pany ar­riv­ing, too.

Hop­ing for a de­light­ful week­end, the four un­wit­ting vis­i­tors are sub­jected to the full force of the Bliss’s the­atri­cal life­style.

It is the sort of synopsis that at one time caused pun­ters to roll their eyes. A re­tired ac­tress? A coun­try­side re­treat? Jimmy Porter had ex­ploded this kind of the­atre when he ap­peared in Look Back in Anger. What was the need to put it back to­gether again?

Hay Fever was writ­ten by Coward, leg­end has it, over a week­end in 1924 and he saw it pro­duced for the first time in Amer­ica a year later. A Bri­tish ver­sion fol­lowed but it was in the Six­ties, when a re­vival of in­ter­est in Coward’s work was tak­ing place, that it was re-ex­am­ined and praised as an im­por­tant part of Coward’s canon.

Brown says: “I think it’s in­ter­est­ing that it was cho­sen, when Coward had fallen out of favour, as part of the pro­gramme at the Na­tional The­atre.

“Ken­neth Ty­nan (the fa­mous critic who be­came the Na­tional’s lit­er­ary man­ager) de­cided to pro­gramme it as part of a cam­paign to re­vive in­ter­est in his work. There were more in­ter­est­ing plays that could have been cho­sen but I think it was in­ter­est­ing that this, which was con­sid­ered a bit of a frothy con­fec­tion, was cho­sen.

“Even though it is a com­edy of man­ners, at its heart it con­tains many hu­man truths.”

Bri­tish ac­tor Mag­gie Steed is tak­ing the stage as Ju­dith Bliss in the West York­shire Play­house pro­duc­tion. Brown says she is per­fect cast­ing for a role which re­quires an ac­tor with a sense of grav­i­tas.

Now that he is in the mid­dle of the work, Brown says it is the sheer qual­ity of the script that makes us keep com­ing back to Coward.

“You don’t re­alise just how pre­cise and com­pli­cated the lan­guage is and the syn­tax is im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able as Coward,” says Brown.

“Lis­ten­ing to the lan­guage is won­der­ful and it is un­mis­tak­ably Coward.”

To July 10.

Pic­ture: Keith Pat­ti­son

PER­FECT­ING CAST­ING: Mag­gie Steed as Ju­dith Bliss in HayFever.

IAN BROWN: Sheer qual­ity of Cow­ard’s script.

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