Sunday, 24 March 2019

Author faces his past in Coward’s last bow

Author faces his past in Coward’s last bow

IT was the last bow of a theatrical collossus: a semi-autobiographical drama in which Noël Coward made what was to prove his final stage appearance.

Last month saw A Song at Twilight successfully revived at the Theatre Royal Bath, starring Simon Callow and Jane Asher in the lead roles.

Now the production is touring the country, and on Monday (March 11) it starts a six-day run at the Theatre Royal Windsor.

Simon Callow plays Sir Hugo Latymer, a world-famous author who is growing old, rude and haughty.

In the private suite of the lakeside hotel where he lives, he is attended to by Hilde, his long-suffering wife and former secretary, and Felix, a handsome young waiter.

Here he nervously awaits the arrival of an old flame, the actress Carlotta Gray — played by Jane Asher — with whom he enjoyed a two-year love affair more than 40 years ago.

What can she possibly want now? Revenge for this uncharitable characterisation of her in his recent autobiography? Money, to compensate for a second-rate acting career in the States?

It turns out Carlotta is writing her own memoir and wants something much more significant than cash.

Bittersweet, hugely entertaining and full of sharp wit and repartee, A Song at Twilight is about harbouring secrets and regretting missed opportunities.

A prolific stage actor, Simon Callow has appeared in many Coward plays, but what does he feel marks out A Song at Twilight from the rest?

“It was the last play Coward wrote and the last play that he wrote for himself and did himself,” he says. “He hadn’t been on the stage, in England anyway, for nearly 20 years when he did A Song at Twilight. He was 66 or 67 when he wrote it and feeling very frail, undergoing operations, and he never appeared on stage in a play again. There’s a strong sense of confrontation with death and illness in the play and looking back at one’s life, seeing how one has lived it or refusing to see how one’s lived it. Those were the things that preoccupied him, I think, at the time and also the question of honesty — how honest you can be, should be or must be in your life. That gives it a very different character to almost any other of his plays.”

How would he sum up the character of Sir Hugo? “Hugo Latymer is a very famous writer, one of the most famous writers in the world. He’s a knight of the realm, which in 1966 was a little less usual than it is now. In other words, he must be pretty outstanding to have gotten a knighthood. He’s 70 or thereabouts and he’s spent his life going around the world to various watering holes. At the moment of the play he’s in Switzerland in a grand suite that he takes for three months every year, then he goes to Arizona to rest and recuperate, meanwhile steadily maintaining an output of novels and short stories. He’s about as famous as a writer can be. Think Ernest Hemingway or John Galsworthy. Think Somerset Maugham, in fact, who was in some sense the model for this character. He’s married to a woman who was his secretary. They’ve been married for 20 years, then his former mistress suddenly reappears in his life from 35 years before and, not to give too much away, she has things to say to him.”

Can he relate to the character on a personal level? “There are not a lot of points of connection between me and Hugo. I’ve known people like him and I know people like him, but I’m not such a person — which is one of the great joys of acting, the chance to get inside another man’s skin. I suppose if I’d written a couple of novels which were hugely successful very early in my life and therefore never have wanted for anything financially or in any other way, I can see how one might become such a man — to some extent isolated from the world and isolated from his own emotions.”

What makes Coward such a revered playwright? “He was very, very clever — he knew his craft extraordinarily well, he knew what was effective for an audience and I think, almost unbeknownst to himself, he goes into and explores emotional territory which is quite special to him. A lot of his characters, if you examine the plays a little more carefully, appear to be about to have nervous breakdowns. There’s a tremendous hyperactivity within them and they seem to be heading for a fall. It’s fascinating how quickly, for example, any relationship turns into a skirmish and a battle. There’s very little in Noël Coward of people just loving each other and having a delightful time together. There’s tension, anxiety, malice and competitiveness. I suppose it’s very characteristic of the world in which he came into his maturity — the world of the Twenties and that basic rhythm and pulse of the Twenties, of the Bright Young Things and all of that.”

He added: “All plays written by Noël Coward are fiercely demanding mentally. You have to be so alert for them and you can’t let up for one second. Coward said of himself ‘My plays need vitality and I myself have the vitality of the devil’. You need that for the unending flow of very sharp language. It’s quite remarkable and it’s very different, for example, from playing Shakespeare where there’s a huge warmth generally in the language and a great emotional richness. Here it’s people who are, sometimes to comic effect and in this play to rather more dramatic effect, at war with each other. Sometimes it’s a war of wit, sometimes it’s a war for survival, and our play falls a little more into the latter category.”

A Song at Twilight is playing at the Theatre Royal Windsor from March 11 to 16. For more information, visit www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

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