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.
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theatre began to feature the kitchen sink, the concerns of those above stairs – where Coward’s gaze was cast – seemed out of date.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.
PERFECTING CASTING: Maggie Steed as Judith Bliss in HayFever.
IAN BROWN: Sheer quality of Coward’s script.