A SONG AT TWILIGHT - AT THE ARTS THEATRE
On the 26 March 1973 I was passing a shabby Lancashire railway halt called Moses Gate when I heard on my car radio of the death of Noel Coward. It was a shock; a sense of a great man’s passing. That greatness, it was clear in the 70s was based on a body of work that was written many decades before: witty works such as ‘Hay Fever’ and ‘Present Laughter’, clever cabaret songs and timeless wartime screenplays such as ‘Brief Encounter’. But in the post-war period, and especially after the success of the new wave of young British writers in the 50s and 60s, Coward was seen, if he was seen at all, as something of a dinosaur, a voice from the past with little to say of relevance to the Beatles and Rolling Stones generation. His last new work for the stage, a trilogy called ‘Suite in Three Keys’, written in 1965, despite good reviews in the conservative press, seemed to confirm his out-of-touch reputation. The three plays were each set in the same hotel room in a very posh hotel on the banks of a Swiss lake.
The lasts of these, ‘A Song of Twilight’, concerns revelations about an ageing man of letters, Sir Hugo Latymer – a writer with a towering reputation to defend through declining health and the vagaries of his ageing body. His is a world of Beluga caviar, pink champagne and flunky room service rolling in his steak béarnaise under a silver cloche.
Surely a play like this is, and was, an atavistic curio? But nothing could be further from the truth – this is a powerful drama brilliantly handling universal themes – the frailty of the human heart, the camouflage hiding one’s true self, the issue of privacy versus the public’s right to know. It raises the issue of homosexuality – still illegal when the play was written – and there are clear parallels with Coward’s own life.
It is an incredibly richly layered work that the director Stephen Unwin has compared to the plays of Chekhov and Ibsen. He has a point and on the basis of last night’s tremendous production, it is surely time to reassess the greatness of Noel Coward’s more serious dramatic works.
Simon Callow plays the grouchy, pompous and shockingly self-regarding Sir Hugo. It is a part tailor made for him as Latymer, the lionised writer, fumes over his flagging energies, barks at his German wife Hilde, bullies (or fawns over) the smart hotel servant Felix. He tries on the same alpha male act with a former lover Carlotta, played by Jane Asher. They have not met for decades, Carlotta has come to Switzerland to confront Hugo with some very uncomfortable truths. After a slow start we immediately start to feel sorry for the put-upon Hilde and take against the growling Hugo who uses his wit to wither. He tries the same tricks on Carlotta but here is a woman with something powerful in her armoury. With her arrival 10 minutes the play glides into top gear like a purring Bentley.
The comparison with Chekhov is accurate. There is very little action besides countless trips to the drinks cabinet, but there is a slow peeling away of uncomfortable truths, plenty of Cowardy bon mots and memorable insights into human nature. There are laughs but essentially this is more tragedy than comedy. Asher is quite brilliant as the old flame ready to ignite, she instantly brings an uneasy vigour to the character – we know from the off that something is amiss. Jessica Turner was also spot on as Hugo’s German wife – there is a scene towards the end of the play when the three characters spark against each other in a way that was thoroughly gripping. Director Unwin allows the script to breathe and there are brave uses of silence that serve to ramp up the electricity of the unsaid. Simon Higlett’s hotel room design perfectly conjures up the elegant sterility of the lakeside suite.
This is a beautifully structured play, timeless in its way, perfectly cast and acted, it is powerful and complex in its themes, funny and serious in turns – written at the twilight of Coward’s career its revival is nevertheless inspired. Stephen Unwin asserts that Coward was the greatest English playwright of the 20th century. If so, my shock on learning of his death in Moses Gate was well founded.