Matthew Warchus on Present Laughter
In 30 years of directing I’ve never attempted any Noël Coward. I’m not exactly sure why. I love a good comedy and Coward is one of the most successful and celebrated comic writers there is, so the omission is much more by accident than design. And yet, it’s fair to say that the world of Coward — and his contemporaries — has always been something of a foreign land to me. I’ve very much enjoyed seeing them in performance from an audience’s perspective but never really known what I could bring to the table as a director. I honestly think it’s imperative that directors find ways to connect to the material they’re charged with delivering; some personal attachments, essential handholds, ways to fill a production with purpose. And so I was excited, and relieved, to discover (actually very quickly) three key pathways to lead me towards this version of Present Laughter.
The first was a proposal to experiment with changing the gender of some of the characters. This was a spontaneous idea that Andrew Scott and I, in our early discussions about the play, happened upon literally simultaneously. It seemed like something Coward might possibly have approved of and in truth doesn’t actually change the sexuality of the central character who is already (albeit more discreetly) given both male and female sexual partners in the original script.
The second appeared when I read Coward described as ‘the original pop star’. This seemed particularly relevant to his depiction of Garry Essendine, the famous matinee idol who is the central character of this play. We are all used to observing in the news the chaotic (sometimes tragic) lives of major pop stars as they navigate (or fail to navigate) between the extraordinary highs and lows of their celebrity lives. But do we pause to properly consider that this lifestyle is itself a form of trauma…partly self-inflicted and partly inflicted by the intense adulation of fans? I love the brilliantly true Coward quote ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ and it’s equally extraordinary how potent the subject of fame and celebrity is when you look carefully at it. It tells you a lot of complicated things about human beings. We often refer, maybe legitimately but also judgementally, to the ego and narcissism of the star, but what about the strange intense neediness of the fans? What is that form of love and desire all about? There’s no doubt that Coward was very interested in all this as he tried to deal with his own celebrity and the unavoidable identity crisis which accompanies fame. Not only are most of the characters in this play driven by an intense need for Garry to do or be something or other, but Garry Essendine’s own surname is of course an anagram of ‘neediness’.
The third pathway opened up when I learned that the original title of Present Laughter had been Sweet Sorrow (a quote about separation from Romeo and Juliet). This original title explicitly indicates ambivalence, contradiction and depth of feeling. It started to vaguely remind me of Peter Pan…a play I love…with Garry Essendine clearly manifesting aspects of the vehement, charismatic, self-dramatising ‘boy’ whose greatest purpose in life is to stay airborne and never land. The play Peter Pan has amazing tonal ambiguity because it dramatises, lightly and fantastically, a battle with mortality — the shadow from which we can never detach. Present Laughter is a sparkling play but Coward allows it some surprising dips into melancholic loneliness, which makes its original title very apposite… Sweet Sorrow indeed. So, you can imagine my delight when I later discovered that Coward, aged 14, had in fact acted in the original production of Peter Pan — at The Duke Of York’s Theatre — playing Slightly, one of the lost boys. A fact which allowed the great critic, Kenneth Tynan, many years later, to note that ‘Noël had been Slightly in Peter Pan as a child and wholly in Peter Pan ever since’.
But even as I write this I must admit to a certain apprehension when it comes to disclosing to you my main pathways through this play —I’m a great believer in ‘show don’t tell’ — with Coward’s own wise words ringing in my ears: ‘If by any chance a playwright writes to express a political opinion or a philosophy, he must be a good enough craftsman to do it with so much spice of entertainment in it that the public get the message without being aware of it’.
If you’ve been to other productions at The Old Vic in the last four years you may have noticed what a passionate believer I am in the political, philosophical and emotional potency of theatre…but entertaining the audience is always the primary first step. That’s the mind/heart-unlocking bit. Without entertainment it’s just medicine.