In the Light, or the Shadows, or the Pitch Darkness

PRESENT LAUGHTER by Noel Coward, directed by Stephen Unwin, with Samuel West and Phyllis Logan, Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Theatre Royal Brighton, Monday 8th August, 7.45pm

It's impossible, for me at least, to think about this play without thinking about its time, when it was written and its planned premier on the 11th of September, 1939. If you remember, Germany invaded Poland on the 1st, and Present Laughter became laughter sometime in the future, 1942 in fact, in Blackpool, then a tour and a London season, after Coward had been sent to Paris to set up a propaganda operation, his involvement ending inconclusively after only a few months, following which he went to Australia to boost morale, finally returning to the stage with a triple bill, including Blithe Spirit which he wrote while on holiday in Wales in 1941 (life went on, I guess) and Present Laughter.

There isn't much in either this play or Blithe Spirit to suggest a country at war. You might think it was all about keep calm etc, lifting spirits with light comedy, don't let the b's get you down. And it's a bit embarrassing, maybe, to admit an admiration for Coward: spectacularly old fashioned, dusty art deco-ed, dressing gown wearing (what was that about, by the way, were the houses really cold? and did Coward influence Hugh Hefner, another ancient, rather ridiculous, dressing gown wearing, cultural signifier?), cliché spouting, sherry quaffing, loved to distraction by amateur companies from one end of the Commonwealth to the other, gossamer slight and charmingly silly, and yet, and yet...

Back to Paris; I learnt this week from the documentary, Peggy Guggenheim, Art Addict, that she was in Paris at precisely the same time as Noel Coward. Peggy was desperately trying to get her collection of modernist art out of the country (successfully as it happened) just as Coward was arriving, tasked with propping up, I guess, tradition and patriotic values. This juxtaposition seems emblematic of that moment when the 1930s gave way to the post-war artistic tsunami of individualism, expressionism, the method, television, soap opera, neoliberalism... Ok, ok now you're getting carried away.

So, here's a controversial statement: Peggy Guggenheim's art, given the events of the recent past (referendums, Donald Trump) is looking a lot more old fashioned and out of date than this Coward play, from the dim and distant pre-World War II world of drawing rooms, latch keys and lackeys. Why? How can that be? You're showing your age now.

Present Laughter is all about belonging. Being inside or outside. In the inner circle. Or the outer inner circle. Or the outer, outer inner. Or the inner outer. Or you're just out. You're in the light, or the shadows, or the pitch darkness.

Theatre, unlike film or, most especially television, does metaphor well. Not just metaphor, it excels in allegory, analogy and allusion, not to mention illusion. Coward plays with these various levels of meaning and allusion with a very light touch. He was very aware of the possibility of paradox, of being a famous actor playing a famous actor who is at home and supposedly an ordinary person. The fictional circles of influence and elegance in the play are mirrored in the real-life circle of allure created between the actor and the audience.

It's not possible to go back (and not a good idea even if it were) but it's good to be reminded of a time when theatre wasn't film's poor relation. Film does so much well, but what it can't do is that collaborative action, the creation of something together, in the here and now and when it works it engenders a sense of belonging unlike anything else. Coward, though, is pretty clear eyed about this. His characters might be delightful and funny but they aren't necessarily likeable.

It's pretty obvious now that the cult of rugged individuality has been good for some and not for others. Whether in art or the movies or business, for every Jackson Pollock there's an awful lot of art school graduates making coffee. What I'm trying to say is that this play is from a moment when a whole country, a whole empire even, was united in one enormous effort. But this kind of togetherness can be exploited, and of course it was. After the war came the backlash. Now comes the backlash against the backlash.

None of this would make sense of course if the play hadn't been well done. The sets and costumes are a pleasingly modern take on a thirties look (no dusty art-deco) even including the dressing gowns. Samuel West is ambiguously charming and convincingly stylish. But when it came to riffing on the theme of insider versus outsider, it was the ensemble work which was most impressive. They did the light touch, the self-sendup, with apparently effortless ease.

Incidentally, Coward's use of commonplace phrases, the everyday familiarities of interaction, are much more than just a lazy way to fill out the dialogue. In Coward plays these clichés are the way that the characters bond, the way the various circles of inclusion are built and maintained, the way they are defended and repaired.

Harold Pinter took the same idea, the same commonplace phrases, and added menace, making the dialogue a means of exclusion, of violence and threat.

Coward's superficial simplicity masks a complex theatrical skill, which rewards re-examination. This play, and production, deserve much more than a glance.

Paul Corcoran