‘SUPERFICIAL, flighty, witty and effervescent,” is how director, Michael Cabot, of London Classic Theatre, always regarded the work of Noel Coward whose play, Private Lives, is at Cork’s Everyman.
Cabot admits that, at first, he didn’t really credit Coward with a whole lot of depth. But through directing the 1930 comedy of manners, Cabot has revised his opinion of the stylish and hugely successful playwright. Private Lives is about a divorced couple honeymooning with their new spouses. They discover they are staying in adjacent rooms at the same hotel and realise that they still have feelings for each other.
Coward was writing about the British upper class. But despite this seemingly narrow prism on the world, Cabot says that the playwright is very perceptive about what makes people tick.
“The play is incredibly accessible. Good drama should connect with people in any era. This play is certainly still as funny as it always was. But it’s quite restrained because Coward wasn’t able to write about the sexual mores of the time in terms of the nitty-gritty. So it’s all quite polite. But there’s an undercurrent to it.
“What’s great about Private Lives is that you’re watching people being naughty. Basically, Elyot and Amanda, although divorced, can’t live without each other. They’re terrifically impulsive. They go on a tryst to Paris, leaving behind their new spouses without any explanation or apology.”
Cabot says that Coward’s entrée to high society gave him a unique insight into the lives of the privileged. “He had fairly inauspicious beginnings, born into a lower middle-class family in south west London. He moved in exalted company, thanks to his talent and fame. But he was never one of them. He used the social situations he encountered through his writing. A lot of the characters he created were very much inspired by people he met. He spent a lot of time with the aristocracy and the very well to-do. The sheer range of people he counted as friends is quite extraordinary. There was Winston Churchill, other politicians and stars of the screen. He was great mates with Harold Pinter. He watched and took notes of what happened around him and used it to his own advantage.”
By the time the prolific Coward was 25, he had plays on in the West End and on Broadway. But Cabot says that Coward suffered a fall from grace “when his work suddenly became passé after the Second World War”. Coward understood how fickle opinion — and success — could be.
“From having the world at his feet, it then turned on him. I think people felt differently after the war. They had a harder edge and a more realistic take on things. Coward’s characters didn’t fit anymore.”
But he kept going. “He took a side-step into the world of cabaret and had great success at that in Las Vegas.” His later years before dying in 1973 “were wonderful. Lawrence Olivier brought him into the National Theatre where Coward directed one of his own plays. He was knighted. On his 70th birthday (four years before he died) everyone rallied around him. He almost felt he had come full circle.”
Coward, synonymous with a silk polka dot dressing gown and smoking cigarettes from a long holder, had relationships with various men, including, as Coward put it, “a little dalliance” with Prince George, Duke of Kent. He didn’t go public about his homosexuality but encouraged his secretary, Cole Lesley, to write a frank biography once he was safely dead.
The playwright, John Osborne, said: “Mr Coward is his own invention and contribution to this century. Anyone who cannot see that should keep well away from the theatre.”
In 1964, the critic, Kenneth Tynan, wrote: “Even the youngest of us will know, in 50 years’ time, exactly what we mean by ‘a very Noel Coward sort of person’.”
The flamboyant legend lives on.
- Private Lives is at the Everyman, Cork, until Saturday