By Chris Wallace
Dublin’s Gate Theatre has a big reputation. Long associated with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, interspersed with its regular programming the Gate has held a retrospective of Beckett’s entire 19 play oeuvre and held four major Pinter festivals. It once toured Waiting for Godot through Ireland and sold out all forty venues. Its shows have more than the usual sprinkling of stars and boasts some notable debuts, including that of Michael Gambon. The most famous debutant of all was 16 year old Orson Welles, travelling around Ireland in 1931 instead of taking up his Harvard scholarship. Welles conned his way in claiming he was a Broadway star. They didn’t believe him but loved his brio and gave him a role anyway.
It’s interesting, then, that the Gate seems to program a Noel Coward play every few years, the latest of which – the Patrick Mason-directed Hay Fever – ends its two month run tonight. Two years ago it was Present Laughter. Two years before that, Private Lives. Five years earlier again, Blithe Spirit. The Gate’s artistic director Michael Colgan clearly ranks Coward up with the greats and the reviews back it up. “An irresistible play”, said the Financial Times. “One of the most perfectly engineered comedies of the century,” said The Times.
The Times’ compliment about Hay Fever being “perfectly engineered” came to mind last week when reading an interview with Scottish playwright Liz Lochhead in The Scotsman. She was musing on the production of fellow playwright Gregory Burke’s Black Watch in 2006 – which turned out to be a major cultural export earner when the play subsequently toured the world – as well as her own earlier work, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, an Edinburgh Festival hit. Chaos attended both productions, right up until opening night. There was a terrifying lack of engineering, the actors uncertain terrifyingly close to their opening nights what the final shape of the plays would actually be.
“Just as we were about to go into rehearsal I still didn’t have a play,” Lochhead told The Scotsman. “I just had an incoherent mess.” Lochhead had to visit director Gerry Mulgrew and ’fess up. “I was…going to accidentally on purpose get on the wrong train and run away from Gerry. I did go and meet him and I said, ‘We don’t have a play! I’m completely stuck!”
Together Lochhead and Mulgrew found the play within the material. Scenes were reordered. Lochhead wrote and rewrote, right up to the wire. The play went on to win prizes, tour abroad, was revived recently by the National Theatre of Scotland and is currently playing at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. Similarly with Black Watch, Lochhead says, the playwright and director really didn’t have a play in the normal understanding of the term when rehearsals started.
Could there be a greater contrast with Coward who, despite the wit of his lines, was a writer preoccupied with the undercarriage, convinced strength there gave the play the chance to fly. Coward was fond of quoting an early mentor who said a play’s construction was as important as a building’s foundation and that even the best dialogue was mere interior decoration by comparison.
“Before the first word of the first act is written, the last act should be clearly in the author’s mind, if not actually written out in the form of a synopsis,” Coward wrote in his 1954 memoir Future Indefinite. “Dialogue, for those who have a talent for it, is easy; but construction, with or without talent, is difficult and of paramount importance. I know this sounds like heresy in this era of highly-praised, half-formulated moods, but no mood, however exquisite, is likely to hold the attention of an audience for two hours and a half unless it is based on a solid structure.”
Given Coward’s verbal facility, it’s an interesting attitude. In the program notes for the Gate’s production of Hay Fever, critic John Lahr argues Coward was a performer who wrote, not a writer who performed. Perhaps like a model who prefers well cut, well made clothes, Coward writing from the performer’s perspective provided the strong underpinnings other playwrights might overlook.
But there was another element, I think – Coward’s respect for audiences. He wanted to deliver satisfying entertainment, not please critics. “(A)s long as I continue to write plays to be acted in theatres,” he wrote in his diary in 1956, “I shall strain every fibre to see that they are clear, well constructed and strong enough in content, either serious or funny, to keep an average paying audience interested from 8.30 until 11.15.” No wonder people keep putting on his plays.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times of 24 September, 2011