The love affair that uncovers the real Noel Coward
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With effortless charm, a rapier wit and a champagne flute in his hand Noel Coward was a quintessentially English figure. Here theatre director Matthew Townsend explores the woman behind the man, his brush with the Nazis and the impressive legacy he left
Noel Coward and his leading lady Gertrude Lawrence were the power couple of their time connected by telephone and telegram, the social media of their age.
If they lived now, they would shun their diaries to squeeze pithy witticisms into 140 characters and ignore their stationery set to instead announce their coupling on Facebook under the ambiguous status 'It's complicated'.
They shared a relationship that was so paradoxical it was verging on the farcical.
Complex but simple. Tempestuous but relaxed. Romantic but purely platonic.
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I've been fascinated by Coward since being introduced indirectly to his work by my grandfather, a rather useless actor and the sort of pier-end entertainer.
I could see the similarities between my ancestor's never-quite-make-it attempts at success as part of the Busy Bees theatrical troupe and Coward's characters.
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Coward might seem an unusual role model for a heterosexual teenager in the 1970s. In my youth the gritty, urban kitchen sink drama had become the flavour of the day and the man in the silk, polka dot dressing gown could easily have been dismissed.
But his tranche of work and ability to transcend generations with his sharp, bright, brittle sense of humour was inspiring.
So much so that it instilled in me a love of theatre that led me to study drama at Cambridge University and become a member of the National Youth Theatre.
I have starred in, produced and directed Coward plays, taking inspiration from the man himself with the latter, getting right to the heart of character representation, giving it layers, depth and context.
To me Coward wasn't just a frivolous playwright with a flute of bubbles – he could see into souls.
I aspired to do the same – to take a paper thin concept fixed in a script and turn it into a tangible, multifaceted individual under the bright spots of the stage.
It's ironic therefore that I now find myself bringing to life the all round polymath who is the central character in a show he wrote but did not realise at the time, Noel and Gertie.
After all, Noel and Gertie is crafted from his personal diaries, interspersed with private letters and personal sentiments he penned to his muse Lawrence.
I am directing his life with his own lines – a daunting prospect indeed when you consider the legacy he leaves behind.
His work does, after all, not only transcend generations but also language, humour and cultural barriers, which is why, after a failed attempt at becoming a spy, Winston Churchill exported him to the continent to amuse the troops.
'Go and sing to them when the guns are firing – that's your job!' he said.
Had the Germans invaded Britain, Coward would have been arrested and killed as he was in the dreaded SS's Sonderfahndungsliste GB – more commonly know as the Black Book. Chillingly the book listed prominent Brits who would be executed if the planned 1940 invasion had been successful. His name sat alongside those of Virginia Woolf, Paul Robeson, Bertrand Russell and HG Wells.
On learning he had made this dubious yet exclusive rollcall Coward said: 'If anyone had told me at that time I was high up on the Nazi blacklist, I should have laughed ... I remember Rebecca West, who was one of the many who shared the honour with me, sent me a telegram: 'My dear – the people we should have been seen dead with'.'
His caddish style was very British of course but this did not stop him touring, acting and singing indefatigably in Europe, Africa, Asia and America. The Nazis may have had him on their death list but he had plenty of fans across the Continent.
This play predominantly concerns his musing on the woman he adored, admired and who confused him more than most. A woman who, upon her death in 1952 at the age of 54, left a legacy to Coward of writer's block which stuck with him for many years.
Lawrence was often described as a bit of a chameleon.
When Coward first met her she was just 11-years-old and he described her face as 'far from pretty, but tremendously alive'.
Without the greasepaint, she was quite plain. But with full make-up she was captivating – when the curtain went up, a strange metamorphosis occurred.
'Sometimes, in Private Lives, I would look at her across the stage and she would simply take my breath away,' Coward wrote.
She was difficult, capricious, chaotic and challenging and she meant the world to Coward.
Some biographers have suggested she may have been the homosexual Coward's only heterosexual experience. He denied this vehemently but in his diaries declared his love in no uncertain terms: 'Love is a true understanding of just a few people for each other ... True love is something much more akin to friendship and friendship, I suppose, is the greatest benison and compensation that Man has.'
Noel and Gertie was written by Sheridan Morley, Coward's trusted biographer who penned his first profile in 1969. He provided Morley with a list of his friends and another of his enemies, telling him to start with the second first.
Morley, son of actor Robert Morley, arts editor at Punch, regular arts diarist for The Times and critic for The Spectator, later inherited the rights to Coward's letters and diaries which then formed the central theme of our play.
During his lifetime, Morley was forbidden to mention his subject's homosexuality.
In subsequent years he was a little defensive about his omission but unlike other profilers he didn't advance the theory that Coward was bisexual.
This notion was mooted after Lawrence admitted that, in one adolescent fumble, she had attempted to demonstrate the facts of life to Coward in a theatre changing room.
But while Morley, also Lawrence's official biographer, claimed Coward could never love her 'in that way,' he agreed this was a vital relationship. The swathe of correspondence between the two is warm, affectionate and funny.
And this provides a beautiful structure to the musical, which last toured 20 years ago, with anecdotes interspersed with songs, sketches and scenes from some of Coward's best works.
Morley's play first opened in the West End in 1983 – 10 years after Coward's death – starring, amongst others, Simon Cadell and Joanna Lumley and ran in London theatres for nine years before being snapped up by Broadway, enjoying a stint with Harry Groener and Twiggy.
But this is no spectacular renaissance – for Coward fans, he's always been, and always will be, part of our lives. His work, his life, his thoughts and attitude is as relevant today as it always was, which is why he continues to speak to young people who are only just discovering his work.
Primarily this is because his sense of humour has the ability to transcend generations.
Additionally, his appeal lies in the fact that underneath the frivolity, his work is really quite serious and even dark.
Private Lives, for example, was written at a time of economic depression, which echoes our own straitened times.
Perhaps Noel and Gertie is, therefore, all the more significant as the only way to see Coward's real opinions without the colour of characterisation.
It is his own 'private life' laid bare. 'Some day,' Coward predicted, 'when Jesus has definitely got me for a sunbeam, my works may be adequately assessed.'
Perhaps that time is now.
Matthew Townshend is a theatre director and actor
Noel and Gertie is on tour throughout the UK now. For information on tour dates and venues visit www.mtproductions.co.uk