Noël Coward's classic farce 'Present Laughter' performs at the ADC Theatre this September. We spoke to the show's director, DAVID SEAR, and learned how the show has plenty to say in the age of social media.
‘A charming constellation of gossipy little planets circling around the great glorious sun.’
Present Laughter, Act II, Scene II.
Out of control celebrity culture. Stalkers who invade the homes of the famous. A sense of impending doom brought about by fear of a global catastrophe. Not 2021, but 1939, when on August 31st the cast and writer-director Noel Coward went to the final dress rehearsal of Present Laughter in preparation for its premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in London in September…
When I first conceived of bringing this brilliant play to the ADC theatre for Bawds the parallels to our own time were clear enough. Social media, to which many of us have become addicted, has globally amplified the concept of celebrity. Like Roland Maule and indeed all of the ‘gossipy little planets’ in Present Laughter there are those on Facebook, TikTok and Twitter who believe they ‘know’ a star just from having seen a post or watched them perform 47 times or so… Social media ‘influencers’ have millions of ‘followers’, a term with clear religious connotations, and the most ‘followed’ ‘celebrity’ on TikTok is a dancer called Charli D’Amelio with 124 million devotees. She has amassed over a billion ‘likes’.
Garry Essendine’s journey in Present Laughter is a direct precursor of our celebrity-obsessed times, which is why the play holds such a fascination for audiences 82 years after Noel Coward wrote it (along with This Happy Breed) in a frenetically creative period for him in the summer of that fateful year. Of course, the main protagonist in Present Laughter is also his most autobiographical character – and there are very few authors in English literature who have so mercilessly lampooned themselves on stage. Even his name, Essendine, is an anagram of neediness. ‘Every play you appear in is exactly the same – superficial, frivolous, without the slightest intellectual significance’ opines the Chekov-loving character Roland, in surely one of the most punishing pieces of self-criticism delivered on any stage. When the play did premiere, Coward played the lead, and audiences saw the man himself taken down in his own play. Present Laughter may be a truly great comedy, but as you will see, it is far from light.
The Lord Chamberlain in the 20th century saw fit not to allow depictions of homosexuality on stage, and not only that of course having sex if you were ‘gay’ (a term coined in Coward’s time) was illegal. Present Laughter serves us the clearest and most subtly subversive view of human sexuality that Coward could muster under those restrictions but still comes to the stage with a candour and vibrancy which we may even shy away from now. ‘I believe now, and I have always believed that there’s far too much damned nonsense talked about sex.. I enjoy it for what it’s worth, and what is more, I fully intend to go on doing so for as long as anybody’s interested.’, says Garry, as he reveals the affairs and sexual predilections of all of his followers in Act III.
It is, of course, in the final analysis a play about acting. And over-acting. About how we all play a variety of parts, sometimes well, sometimes badly. Present Laughter takes its name from a song sung by a clown in Twelfth Night urging a spirit of Carpe Diem. You will see our cast occasionally over-act, I hope gloriously, in honour of that spirit. If you come to see us you should know in advance that Noel wanted them to, and perhaps wanted you to reflect upon your own behaviour...
As we move into the final phase of our rehearsal period I must of course profoundly thank that cast and our crew for their loyalty and forbearance as we have struggled through our own period of impending doom, and we, like the premiere in 1939, suffered postponement and disappointment. Noel finally made it to the stage with Present Laughter 79 years ago, on 20th September 1942, in a national tour to ‘lift the spirits of the nation’. We will be presenting some laughter from 21st-25th September at the ADC with a hope to do the same for your spirits. Of course, if we do provide present mirth, then please follow us on Facebook…
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty;
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 3