northoël Coward was the epitome of style. Fittingly, that is the theme of the opening of a major exhibition at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, which contains costumes, sets, paintings and production photographs. Brad Rosenstein, its curator, says Coward is “especially noted for his verbal wit” but that the exhibition “will remind us that his original productions were also a visual feast for his audience.”
Sounds tempting, but it raises several questions. What do we really mean by style? And how has it changed over the years? In Coward’s case, the style consisted of the effortless projection of a unique personality. You see it clearly on the cover of a 1955 LP album, Noël Coward in Las Vegas, where he stands in the Nevada desert immaculately dressed in a dark suit and suede shoes as he grabs a cup of tea. I only saw Coward once in person and that was on the first night of a compilation show, Coward Custard, at the Mermaid Theater in London in 1972. Although visibly aged, it looked immensely elegant. But my main memory is how John Moffatt dried up in the middle of a Coward song. With superb nonchalance, Moffatt simply asked the director to go back to the beginning of the issue. That is what I call style.
But although some aspects of the style are permanent, their visual manifestation changes over time. You can see that by tracking the radical changes that have taken hold of a particular work, Present Laughter. First seen in 1943, it is one of five canon comedies (the others being Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, and Blithe Spirit) that constitute Coward’s main claim to posterity. Patently autobiographical, it is about a star actor, Garry Essendine, who uses his instinctive charm to protect himself against the clamorous demands of lovers, friends and the world at large.
Coward wrote Garry as “a bravery role” for himself and there is a photo from a revival from 1947 that shows exactly how he must have played it. While being harangued by an angry young playwright from Uckfield (Robert Eddison), Coward, in a polka dot bow tie and striped robe, leans back in his chair, watching with amused indifference. That set the pattern for future revivals until Albert Finney played Garry at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 1977. There’s a wonderful shot of Finney, sporting a tweed suit and brown trilby, facing the camera with a prominent jaw resolution. . Finney banished the idea that Coward should be played with lacquered softness and gave us a beefy, tomboy Garry who used funny faces and joking voices to ward off ghastly intruders. As Irving Wardle wrote in the Times, “It’s like Lucky Jim ended up in dressing room number one.”
Sometimes the attempt to escape the Coward’s footprint can lead to a grotesque hype: That was the fault of a 2018 revival of Sean Foley Chichester, which he heartily detested. But Andrew Scott, in last year’s Old Vic production, brilliantly demonstrated that elegance can be combined with innovation. Where Coward’s Garry is first seen in pajamas, Scott walked in sporting a pirate patch and brocade vest as if he had come from JM Barrie’s Neverland. That made exactly the point that Garry, like its author, is a lost boy. As Kenneth Tynan wrote in 1953: “Forty years ago, Coward was a bit in Peter Pan and you could say he has been completely in Peter Pan ever since.” But Scott, along with the rest of a talented cast that includes Indira Varma and Sophie Thompson, proved that style is innate and a quality that must be redefined with each decade.
But what about the idea that Coward’s works offer a series of visual feasts? It is true, but there are much more varied dishes for the banquet than custom allows. The usual image of the Coward is of himself in a robe and Gertrude Lawrence in a satin Molyneux gown, entwined with enthusiasm in Private Lives. But his work settings include a buffet at the train station (Still Life, which became the movie Brief Encounter), a London pub (Peace in Our Time), an imaginary island in the Pacific (South Sea Bubble) and on board of a cruise ship (Sail Away). While Gladys Calthrop’s sets gave Coward’s works exotic glamor in the 1920s and 1930s, today designers feel free to reinterpret them.
The outstanding example is director and designer Philip Prowse, who has altered our visual perception of Coward. At the Citizens of Glasgow in 1999 he took Cavalcade, conventionally seen as a patriotic parade over the first 30 years of the 20th century, and stripped it of false sentiments. One scene in particular, in which the recruiting songs of 1914 were accompanied by strange images of death, seemed like a precursor to Oh! What a beautiful war. And, as Michelle Gomez sang the Twentieth Century Blues climax with Brechtian ferocity, electronic billboards carried us through the horrors of the years to come. Prowse’s production of Coward’s Semi-Monde, first seen in Glasgow in 1977, also highlighted the decline of the social butterflies that flitted through the lounge and bar of the Paris Ritz.
The coward was always an accumulation of contradictions: a Bohemian proselytizer who worked 12 hours a day, a defender of sexual freedom and a scathing moralist, a sophisticated cosmopolitan who liked to retire early to bed with “something little egg in a tray “. Coward had many facets, but he was indisputably stylish; and the art of reviving his work, I suggest, lies in finding modern equivalents without simply imitating the silky elegance of the past.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.