What might it be

It is more challenging to perform theatrical comedy than tragedy, because beneath the humour there must be recognizable truth

Tom Sutcliffe describes two recent revivals which demonstrate this principle

Comedy, the title of Dante’s great account of the world according to the Christian and Catholic view, is now on the popular website of The Guardian reduced to the most economical form of theatre: the stand-up comic, all that’s left now in the live theatre of Revue or Burlesque.

Remarkable successes

People go to the theatre to be entertained, but actually comedy as opposed to tragedy is what really separates the men from the boys. The farcical wing of comedy at its best (i.e. the French genius, Georges Feydeau) is cruel not sentimental, bleak not optimistic, uncompromising not flexible. It is much harder to perform comedies and farce well because they have to be based in truth, recognizable – even when they may exploit absurdity and silliness. So the success of two recent London revivals – of Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (at the National Theatre) and Noel Coward’s Design for Living (at the Old Vic) – has been all the more remarkable.

Maybe the wildly under-rated Rattigan is generally not seen as a writer of comedies, and this forgotten play from June 1939 (which seemed irrelevant, and shut after a few weeks in the West End when the whole world was about to fall apart) does include a suicide, mindless self-indulgence and an unscrupulous gold-digger. Rattigan is always marketed as drama rather than comedy, but Chekhov’s plays are not tragedies because people sometimes shoot themselves.

In After the Dance, the director Thea Sharrock got two superb performances that transformed the evening, from Benedict Cumberbatch as the drunk writer David Scott-Fowler and Nancy Carroll as Joan, his equally hard-drinking wife. Adrian Scarborough as David’s resident friend John Reid was the perfect chorus figure, interpreting for the audience the seriousness of the play, which is all about values and the purpose of life (or lack of it).

Social experiment

Coward’s Design for Living was staged in 1933 and is the story of a threesome, a painter Otto (Tom Burke) and a playwright Leo (Andrew Scott) who are almost more in love with each other than with the delicious clever Gilda (Lisa Dillon), with whom they find themselves taking turns – though she goes off and abandons them both for a time, to

New York where she actually gets married to their friend, the sterling picture dealer Ernest Friedman (Angus Wright), before in the denouement acknowledging that somehow they are meant for each other, and that is all there is to it.

I doubt that the General Synod would look favourably upon Coward’s proposition. Being faithful to two people at the same time is quite difficult – and what Coward is showing us is nothing like as mysterious as the Trinity. He makes us laugh uncontrollably at their illusions and follies, and does not stint on the pain generated by Gilda’s final decision to leave her actual husband. But beneath Coward’s genius with words (not at all easy to put on the stage in a convincing truthful fashion) this play actually examines a social experiment akin to Da Ponte and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. For it is about people discovering their souls. And the way director Anthony Page has got this young not at all famous cast to create such a complex world of emotions and self-indulgence is extraordinary, and richly depicted by the fine designer Lez Brotherston.

Page gets from his performers a truth and hilarity of which they may not have known themselves capable, moulding fully rounded people whom we love for being themselves. The acting of the threesome is breathtaking in its daring and generosity, the blokes risking all in a brilliant affectionate drunk scene, which suggests intimacy without pushing the connection to the point where they are simply out homosexuals. There is no doubt at various points in the play of the physicality of their relationship with the bewildered, stylish, helplessly compelling Gilda.

Fully rounded characters

Where is sin in all this, you may ask? Coward is not in denial that all may not be well, and that the ‘happy’ conclusion is only the ending of a play. But how can one (should one) resist a writer who describes a wimple as ‘a sort of medieval megaphone made of linen’? Not serious enough about the human condition? Well, humour is the best tool for understanding the truth about how we really are. I believe in the beings Coward puts on stage, and Page’s production makes us laugh helplessly and involuntarily at and with them in a way that distils the true joie de vivre of which Coward was abundantly conscious. Joy is never unalloyed. Sometimes in the theatre one gets a sense of what it might be. ND