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Mirrors of Adultery: This Was a Man

26 May 2017

This Was a Man

By Noël Coward

West End Premiere of a Controversial Masterpiece

Venture Wolf at Leicester Square Theatre until 28th May

Review by Mark Aspen

What are society’s values?  This is the question that Noël Coward asks in his This Was a Man.  Unfortunately for Coward, it was also the question that the Lord Chamberlain was also asking in 1926.  In September of that year, Lord Cromer, as Lord Chamberlain, banned the play as it “involves an amount of adultery, cynically and light-heartedly treated, which makes the play more than dubious”.  Sir Douglas Dawson, his Comptroller, added, “What better propaganda could the Soviet instigate?  Every character in this play, presumably ladies and gentlemen, leads an adulterous life and glories in doing so”.

Of course, 1926 was the year of the General Strike and then was a fear of revolution in the air, so Coward’s satirising adulterous aristocrats might have been incendiary. It may well be that some people, aristocratic or otherwise, might have considered a moral duty pointless after the slaughter of the Great War, a few years earlier. However, it was barely three years previously that Cromer and Dawson had reluctantly passed Coward’s The Vortex for licencing, in spite of the play being about a married lady from the upper echelons of society who has a toy-boy and whose son is a cocaine addict.

This Was a Man is a play clearly rooted in its time, and there it lay for nearly nine decades until the Finborough Theatre resurrected it in 2014.  It has never until now had a West End production.

Hence, Venture Wolf’s production, now running at the Leicester Square Theatre, is to be greatly admired for its ambitious enterprise in taking a three-fold risk:  resurrecting the play, showing it in the West End, and setting it in a different period.  But it is a Noël Coward, so what could go wrong?

Coward wrote many unperformed or unpublished play scripts, including nearly a dozen in 1918, the year that he was discharged from the army on medical grounds, so there may well be good reasons why these scripts, and that of This Was a Man, have gone unproduced.  The scenes all seem to be truncated, and seems as if This Was a Man is really a sketch-book for other pieces, (Private Lives perhaps, produced in 1929).

Society portrait painter Edward Churt circle is a thirties-something martini and mah-jong glitterati for whom adultery is as much a social must as the season. His attractive wife Carol enjoys a series of passionate affairs while he turns a blind eye.

This Was a Man is certainly not the best Noël Coward script to work from, but director James Paul Taylor has made the daring choice of resetting it forward by nearly a half-century to the early seventies.  Unfortunately, however, this opens up many weaknesses in the play and undermines what might have been an outstanding production.  Trim-phones, tie-dye slash curtains and unkempt butlers neither fit with the louche, insouciant amoral atmosphere that the play demands or with its stylishly sparkling background of privilege.  Crucially, seventies’ non-contact dancing does not work for the crucial dance-seduction scene.

In spite of that caveat, the performance of Daisy Porter in the central role of Carol Churt, the vampish femme fatale, picks up the character with gusto.   Carol is described as “governed by sex” but, somewhat unfairly, “with no intellect to provide ballast”.  Although she seems to regard every man who comes past as a potential new plaything, she is by no means as single-dimensioned character as the other protagonists imply.  Porter sizzles in the role, sensual, incisive and with a subtlety of expression and just enough clipping of her vowels to smack of classic Coward.  With flaming red hair and dangerous red lipstick, matching Carol’s flaming red passion and dangerous red ensnarement, there is something as feline an Art Deco 1920’s Cartier panther about Porter.

this-was-a-man-main

The feline nature comes spitting out in her interactions with Zoe St Merryn, her husband’s “close confidante” for whom “marriage is an overrated amusement”.  Zoe has just returned from New York, where she has been recuperating after her divorce, and is currently living in Claridges, which she regards as “austere”.  (Currently, in 2017, rooms are up to £2,220 per night: I just checked!)    When Carol and Zoe have the claws out, catty understates it!

Bibi Lucille, pitches the character of Zoe as a foil to Carol, more resilient and flinty, playing the part with subtlety.  (Incidentally, Lucille seems to be cornering the market in rediscoveries of famous playwrights, having recently acted in Shakespeare’s “lost” play Cardenio.)  Zoe had been the scapegoat for her philandering husband in their divorce in order to protect his reputation.  She regrets having taken a string of lovers in retaliation, but is now trying to rekindle the love of Edward.   In many respects, she is a mirror to Carol.

In fact the various characters all seem to be holding up figurative mirrors to each other defects.  Every one of them is nursing self-inflicted psychologic wounds, whilst keeping their real feelings well repressed, perhaps they don’t know what their real feelings are.

This Was a Man

The melancholic Edward Churt, presumably the once-a-man of the play’s title, has had “all the vitality sucked out of him”.   He believes himself to sophisticated and “civilised” by pretending to be indifferent to this wife’s quite open affairs.   So, he supress his emotions and rationalises this attitude by taking the “modern” view that Carol is “not his property”. In fact he is stuck in a trap of his own making.  Paul Vitty in this role, falls a little short in portraying the sense of sophisticated ennui demanded by Coward, and comes over more as depressed and impotent in his ability to act decisively, until it is all too late.

Enter Edward’s old school chum, Major Evelyn Bathurst, “Evie” to his friends, stiff upper lip, well starched, favourite adjective “splendid!”.   Evie knows about his pal’s problems with his wife, and suggests that she should be “read the Riot Act”, and that he is the one to do it.  What he doesn’t tell Edward, though, is the plan of action is to set a honey-trap in the form of a little tête-à-tête, an intimate dinner with Carol in his flat.  We begin to suspect Evie’s motives, but, true to his plan, he does confront her when she steps up her practiced seduction routine: “You have the soul of a harlot”.  But he is rebuffed with ridicule, then tears, then fainting.  He is no match for Carol’s skilled manipulations, and eventually breaks down in tears … as she creeps into his bedroom.   Tom Pyke growls away as Evie, postures and preens, but does not really convince as the polished military man with the brittle armour.   One would expect him to be buffed-up to impeccable perfection, both literally and figuratively, and certainly know how to pronounce “subaltern” and “blackguard”.  Evie may have feet of clay, but they wear mirror-finish boots.

Coward has badly served the five minor characters in the play, making them largely scene-setters.  However, reference must be made to Blackwell, Evie’s manservant, and almost mute part, played by James Chadburn.  Chadburn had Blackwell subtly eavesdropping on Carol and Evie’s intimacies, a slight nod, a hint of a raised eyebrow.  It was just enough not to pull the focus from the main action.

In these intimacies, Carol defends her serial infidelities as a reaction against her husband’s indifference to her.  Maybe it is a chicken and egg situation, but we do just begin to believe her.  Coward’s writing often shows an incipient misogyny, that the woman is culpable every time: an archetypical Eve holds out the bitten apple to a poor defenceless Adam.  But in This Was a Man, one feels some sympathy with Carol faced with the lot of emotionally incompetent oafs on the men’s side.

Just after writing This Was a Man, and having its performance licence refused, Coward had a nervous breakdown (on holiday in the Pacific!) and had been generally depressed about his work.  One wonders if Edward Churt is a symbolic self-portrait and Carol is a representation of his thwarted writings.

Coward certainly takes the opportunity to take a side-swipe at the Lord Chamberlain’s censors.  He has Edward suggest a trip to the theatre to see a play about a woman who takes a lover as young as her son, a play that the Church of England did not approve: clearly a reference to The Vortex.   Later he suggests to Zoe that they go to see a “clean play, a love story without sex” because it will be easy to get tickets.

You see, there are some Coward witticisms but the humour in it seems hollow.  Without Coward’s usual scintillating quips, there is not too much material to make the comedy zing.  Add sophistry without sophistication, and a glitterati without glitter, the Venture Wolf company were on a hard call.   It has used a low-budget vehicle to bring an almost-forgotten Coward to its West End premiere, and that is surely no mean achievement, for which the theatre world should be grateful.

Mark Aspen

May 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From → Drama, Reviews

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