National Theatre, Lyttelton. Directed by Howard Davies. With Alex Jennings as Gary Essendine. Opened at the Lyttelton October 2, 2007
The second night in a row that we’ve been in the Lyttelton, and the transformation from the set of Women of Troy to Present Laughter is no less than breathtaking. We now have a three-level scene, receding back for possibly seventy or seventy-five feet, or so it seems, representing Garry Essendine’s studio, evidently on an upper floor of an apartment building, perhaps a sort of penthouse, to judge from the lofty, buttressed ceiling through which light — well, “pours” is not the word; this is London, of course — but when it is daylight outside we are dimly aware of it. But night time is Gary’s time, for pleasure, escapades, and foolish flings, for which he pays, to some extent ruefully, but ultimately resignedly, the morning after. The play opens, in fact, with a “cold-light-of-dawn” scene, in which we see Daphne Stillington, Gary’s most recent semi-reluctant conquest, emerging from the “spare room” by means of the down-stage right door and interacting testily with the three people who together manage to keep the great stage idol going: Miss Erikson, cleaning lady and chain-smoking Jill of all trades; Fred, a sort of butler, footman, and valet rolled into one; and Monica Reed, Gary’s secretary — all three of whom are devoted to him and tireless in their attempts to keep him functioning without dangerously inhibiting his style or damaging his libido.
Add to this a fourth, and crucial person: Liz Essendine, Gary’s estranged wife, who loves him greatly but has had to put some distance between the two of them for the sake of her own sanity. It is Liz who will turn up again, at the last, as she does so frequently, and rescue Gary by acceding to his request that he move in with her, abandoning the superficial, selfish women like Daphne and, preeminently, Joanna Lyppiat, wife of Henry Lyppiat, Gary’s business associate, who seduces, flings off, returns, flings off once again, returns once again, and seems determined, along with Daphne and a never-say-die persistent fledgling dramatist, Roland Maule, to accompany him on his imminent tour to Africa.
Seldom have I seen a more deftly, even exquisitely, managed plot than this. It is an expansive action, requiring just under three hours (including the interval) to accomplish. Coward wrote this play for himself, as he relates in his autobiography Future Indefinite (excerpted in the program), in only several weeks, in April – May 1939, along with a companion play, This Happy Breed — also with a starring role for himself. (I’m now reading the latter.) Surely this is one of Coward’s best plays, along with Private Lives and a few others. The dramaturgical hand is sure and deft, the pace is masterfully well maintained, and the characterizations are sharp, very well differentiated, and complementary in the best dramatic sense. And, as in other Coward successes, the idea of truth at last coming out and triumphing over a veneer of falsehood and pretense shows itself quite unambiguously. Coward always romanticizes, to some extent, but he does so because he observes a kind of perennial desire and need on the part of most human beings to deal fulsomely in the romantic — sometimes at a heavy, or even unacceptable, cost. But there is always a way around an unhappy ending, and Coward manages to find it, smoothing out the roughness that makes human relationships temporarily, and in a very funny way, abrasive. The “truth,” finally, comes in the form of a blithe acknowledgment that human beings are far from perfect and that it is best for them to admit and live with what they are, and what they need and desire, and even what they most fear.
This production, given the requirements of this Coward script, achieves the full transparency that Coward’s judicious manipulation of plot and tightly crafted dialogue call for. The casting is excellent all around, and Alex Jennings, who has won a series of awards for his acting, is especially telling in the central role. He turns anxiety into rich comic art. We sympathize with his character even while observing that in important ways he is his own worst enemy, but seeing also that he, no less than his much gifted creator — Coward himself, I mean, of course — has that requisite “talent to amuse.”
This is a vastly amusing play, in fact, and it has a present-ness that is captured in the title of Present Laughter itself, echoing Feste’s bittersweet song at the end of Twelfth Night:
Present love hath present laughter,
What’s to come is still unsure;
In delay there lies no plenty,
So come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
Written on the eve of World War II and delayed in reaching the stage because of the European-wide reverberations of Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1938, this play and its title speak, almost seventy years after the fact, to the radical unsureness endemic in all human affairs — and speak also to our constant need, under those or any other circumstances, to seize opportunities when and where they emerge, bearing in mind that “In delay there lies no plenty.” As one grows older, that advice becomes ever more pertinent, and even urgent.