SOMETIMES, ALL YOU need, for a cultural pick-me-up that allows you to remember that there is true artistic greatness in this broken little world of ours, all you need to do is step into a movie theatre. But not just any movie theatre. On this particular occasion, if you step into the NT Live broadcast of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, featuring the utterly flawless Andrew Scott as Garry Essendine, you will be wrapped in the security of a magnificently written, cast, staged and directed comedy that not only paints a thoughtful and utterly crisp portrait of several very large, very fragile egos, but has a kernel of depth and the levity of a French farce. Replete with in-house theatre jokes and tight and accurate timing, it’s a treat from beginning to end.
Originally titled Sweet Sorrow, Present Laughter was written in 1939 but only saw light of day in the early 1940s. It is a foray into the life of theatre star Essendine, and it is here where you discover his debauched life and the women, including a domestic, Miss Erikson (Liza Sadovy), his secretary Monica Reed (Sophie Thompson) and his wife Liz (Indira Varma), who keep him in a semblance of order. Or who try to. He’s adored to embarrassment by fans; everyone wants to climb into his life in whatever way possible. And while he loves the attention to distraction, he’s a more complicated character than just that. Present Laughter is not just a giggle a minute, indeed it has an underbelly of sadness, but one that offers an edge to the laughter, rather than a dollop of maudlin. In a way, it resonates with some of the complicated ideas in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, yet as a tale about self-indulgence, it never becomes self-indulgent and retains an upper hand of supreme levity.
With a sub-plot featuring gender twists that vie with a great deal of savvy from the original, given the taboo of homosexual encounters at the time the work was written and first saw light of day, the hilarity stakes are driven even further up the wall. Sex is rampant and in the air, from the curtain up, but it is contained in sophisticated grown-up repartee, and a monologue about the sex lives of others, a book and an apple, that is pure gold.
Featuring a trio of ottomans as part of the set, a kind of stage within a stage is cast, and with the requisite amount of doors to set up hiding places, offices and a plot-quenching spare room, the work is refined to completion.
It is, however, a very long production, featuring an interval and several acts, but it does not miss a beat and there is not one moment of emptiness. The work is polished to the hilt, celebrating the quicksilver spite and malice of Coward’s pen, which paints a picture of the charm and hypocrisy of the acting fraternity and all its grabbers-on — even ones with cardboard wings and smeared lipstick. If you see one NTLive production in your life, make it this one.
- Present Laughter is written by Noël Coward and directed by Matthew Warchus for the Old Vic in London. It is performed by Nicole Agada, Kitty Archer, Enzo Cilenti, Joshua Hill, Dan Krikler, Tom Peters, Liza Sadovy, Abdul Salis, Andrew Scott, Nada Sharp, Luke Thallon, Sophie Thompson, Suzie Toase, Indira Varma. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Rob Howell (set and costumes), Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone (lighting), Simon Baker (sound), Jessica Ronane (casting), Charlie Hughes D’Aeth (voice) and Penny Dyer (dialect). Release date in South Africa, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: December 14 19 2019, for a limited season.