In celebration of 30 years of entertainment at Theatre on the Bay, Pieter Toerien Productions present the Noël Coward comedy classic, Present Laughter. It sees the West End’s Partick Ryecart in the lead as the self-obsessed actor, Gary Essendine, and South Africa’s sweetheart of the stage, Kate Normington, as his witty and strong-willed, estranged (but ever present) wife, Liz. Ryecart and Normington give some insight into their characters, as well as the Coward-perspective that inspired it all, in this Spotlight interview.
As a farce, the origin story of Present Laughter has two sides. On the one hand, the title of the play, ‘Present Laughter’, is a nod to a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “present mirth hath present laughter”, turning ‘present’ into a clever carpe diem type play on words. On the other hand, and perhaps the more intriguing of the two, is the perception that Coward wrote this rumoured semi-autobiographical play with himself in mind to play the leading man, Gary, which he then did.
Stepping into the stage-shoes of the man himself – with Gary viewed through Coward-tinted glasses – must be a daunting task, but it is a task that Ryecart, is taking in his stride. He understands that a good actor can make even such a precisely crafted role their own.
“The only way to initially approach any play is from one's own angle; as a person and as an actor […] All well-constructed plays have characters with a wide degree, not necessarily of interpretation, but of presentation. So it feels good to keep the old chap alive in 2018. I have worked with two of the actresses in his opening production of this - and I think they would approve of the mood. He was a shockingly acerbic ‘master’ of his own theatrical empire, which the public felt thrilled to look into through his own mirror. But he was close to no one.”
It is then no surprise that Present Laughter has been described as a glimpse into the “topsy-turvy world of show biz”. Normington shares this mirror image perspective. “The topsy-turvy world of show biz is really just a mirror on a world in which fact is often stranger than fiction […] When all else fails, theatre will and must prevail, if we are to keep our sanity. Didn't Nietzsche say, 'We have art in order not to die of the truth.’? As the wife of the play's protagonist, my character seems eerily aware of this maxim. It can be incestuous, maddening, expedient, chaotic, but theatre will always be creatively irresistible. As my character says to her husband: 'We all know about your irresistible fascination. We've watched it going on monotonously for twenty years.' She is talking about his philandering, but also his enormous talent which cannot be denied. He is a celebrated performer who himself satirises the relevance of the theatre by describing it as smoke and mirrors, but is being darkly ironic when he says this […] And so it sometimes is in showbiz, life imitating art, and vice versa, with less of tinsel and shiny lights.”
The way Gary’s ego-driven persona links into this show biz perspective also provides for some surprises along the way, says Ryecart. One being “how unforgiving he is of others – as indeed Coward was – and hopefully amusing in being that”. “Coward's mantra was ‘a talent to amuse’”, and much like Gary in Present Laughter, “he was certainly able to amuse so much that people overlooked his less generous bits”.
A master of art imitating life, Coward was indeed. Somehow, through the frankness of his pen and persona he has kept audiences fascinated with plays, such as Present Laughter, long after his passing. Even though Present Laughter dates back to 1939 (pre WWII) and was staged for the first time in 1942 (starring Coward, naturally), it has had numerous West End revivals, and a 2017 Broadway staging, with it now making a 2018 Cape Town turn.
Ryecart believes it still appeals to audiences today, because, regardless of the era, it remains entertaining with a touch of escapism. “Like all successful theatre, it takes you somewhere else for a short space of time. It doesn't really matter where. As long as it does. Hopefully, the foibles and farcical situations created by relationships whether they are adulterous or not will (and have) made people laugh always – an audience can laugh both with and at.”
To this Normington adds that “the themes are as prevalent today as they were in Coward's day”. “Men and women becoming experts at influencing one another to achieve their self-interested ends, and deceiving one another unscrupulously in their pursuit of sex and partnership. Coward's writing is an extreme and very funny example of this dance.”
Through that dance, Present Laughter “provides a fascinating insight or reminder – albeit heightened – of the sweat and toil of the theatre and the work involved to create any sort of success, which was Coward's domain, and a sense of no fools being suffered”, says Ryecart.
It is that type of Coward-styled insight that drew Normington to this production. “Coward's writing is extraordinary in its humour and observation. His insights comes from an interesting angle, and the consequent farcical theatrical opportunities are just too delicious to pass over.” Apart from the Coward appeal of this current production, Normington admits, “I have also wanted to work with [director] Fred Abrahams for 20 years!”
Add to the Coward-Abrahams combo the fact that Present Laughter brought Ryecart all the way from London to South Africa and is being staged in celebration of 30 years of Theatre on the Bay entertainment courtesy of producer Pieter Toerien, then this production certainly promises to be a memorable one.
Present Laughter is however not Normington’s first memorable Theatre on the Bay onstage experience. She has a great appreciation for the theatre contribution of the man behind the many productions that have crossed this well-known stage. “Pieter is one of our oldest, respected producers, having brought us theatre for over half a century. Even in cricket terms, that's a really good game. He has bought us all time and space to play, to try out new and old works, and – given our precarious economy and current international dread – I'd say giving something fundamental back to the community, at a time we need it most. He allows audiences and performers alike to feed their souls, and continues to keep his theatre doors open for entertainment. That takes some doing.”
Ryecart shares a similar view, and adds that he hopes audiences will continue to support this gem of a theatre that Pieter Toerien Productions call home. “Theatre on the Bay is a genuine world jewel that the city of Cape Town should absolutely rejoice in, and be proud of, and I hope they are.”
You can see Present Laughter at the jewel that is Theatre on the Bay until 10 March 2018, with tickets available at Computicket. Thereafter, Ryecart steps off the stage to co-produce the next Theatre on the Bay offering, Fatal Attraction, which opens on 16 March 2018. Tickets for this play by James Dearden (based on his iconic film) is also available through Computicket.