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The Noel Coward Society is the trading name of Noel Coward Ltd, a company wholly owned by the Noel Coward Foundation, a registered charity. The Society is autonomous, run by an executive committee

Volcano
An article by Philip Hoare in the Independent on Sunday
This week, an Essex theatre will hold the world premiere of an unperformed, unpublished Noel Coward play. Volcano, which has languished in the archives since the 1950s, has been dusted down and directed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff, by television's favourite Inspector DaIgliesh, Roy Marsden, with an exceptionally youthful cast and an eye to the West End. Marsden, rehearsing his actors in the local pub, is keen to point out the Pinteresque qualities of this tale of frustrated passions on a tropical island - The Birthday Party in Hawaiian shirts. "It will shock audiences because of what it's tying to say about human relationships" says Marsden, who seeks to break free from Cowardian clichés.

It's an admirable ambition, and one which Volcano might help him fulfill. Written in 1956, when Coward was Britain's first celebrity tax exile, it was the product of his laidback life in the crumbling colonial relic of Jamaica.
Coward's reputation had taken a battering. The British public were no longer satisfied with reruns of Brief Encounter, and critics such as Beverley Baxter posed the question, "Did Noel Coward survive the war?" Coward seemed a casualty of revolution, and he had retreated to his island paradise to lick his wounds.

Yet Volcano proves that he had not only taken on board the radical changes of the time, but that his work had pre-empted them. The kitchen-sink playwrights not only rated his work but acknowledged its inspiration: Pinter would pay tribute to Coward's portrayal of a fantastical class which "wasn't intended to be an accurate representation... [it] was an abstraction, a world which became his world"; the young turk Kenneth Tynan pronounced that Pinter's "elliptical patter" owed much to Coward. And when in 1956 John Osborne declared Coward "his own invention and contribution to this century - Anyone who cannot see that should keep well away from the theatre", it seemed that the ageing Bright YoungThine could still cut it after all.

For decades Coward had successfully reinvented himself, from the decadent hedonist of the 1920s, with his cocaine-and-toy-boy succés de scandale, The Vortex (1924), to the sophisticated yuppiedom of Design for Living (1932), and the arch-patriot of In Which We Serve (1941). He would yet become a Las Yegas cabaret star, posing surreally in the Nevada desert in an evening suit with a cup of tea, a sort of cross between Bryan Ferry and Elvis (both of whom owed something to Coward's conception of the modern celebrity). Now Volcano comes out of the past to redefine a star already used to more character changes than David Bowie.

It's the freshness of the play, unencumbered by endless staid productions and attempts to reproduce its creator's clipped tones, that makes it a vital antidote to Joan Collins playing Private Lives. But Volcano has deeper, darker themes, themselves part of the reason why it has lain so long in the Coward vaults.

On a fictional Caribbean island, a widow in her early 40s, Adele Shelley, is faced with the ghosts of her passionate past when handsome Lothario Guy Littleton returns on a visit and seduces a young married woman, Ellen Danbury When the lovers' respective spouses, Melissa Littleton and Keith Danbury, arrive, the plot is further complicated by the revelation that Keith also turns out to have been in love with Guy.
 
The play's overt discussion of sex - and the inclusion of a gay relationship - was not what Coward's now middle-aged audiences expected of him. His producer, Binkie Beaumont, turned down the play on grounds of its construction; but may have envisaged problems getting it past the censors of the Lord Chamberlain's Office.

Then Katharine Hepburn, whom Coward had hoped would play Adele, turned down the script (sent by Coward to Hepburn's house in New York, where his agent recalled being greeted by a woman with a mop, whom he took to be the cleaner, until she lifted her elbow and asked him - in unmistakeably husky tones - to stick the script under her arm). But the more pressing reason for the shelving of Volcano was the fact that Coward had based its sexual intrigue on a real-life situation.

Coward's Jamaican homes, Blue Harbour, and his clifflop chalet, Firefly, were located on the louche north coast of the island, a veritable ants nest of celebrities, from Ivor Novello to Claudette Colbert, from Bette Davis to Errol Flynn. In pre-package-tour days, they were left unbothered by the plebian hordes - as well as the paparazzi - to carry on their affairs in private. Days were spent idling by the pool over rum punches; evenings driving to neighbouring villas to catch supper served by silent, white-coated black servants who could be relied upon to keep their own counsel.

Coward had first come to Jamaica during the war, and had fallen in love with the place. In 1947 he built Blue Harbour, and shortly afterwards, when the celebrities arriving to stay became too much, Firefly. Laurence Olivier came to smoke dope (he proclaimed the grass grown on the estate next to Coward's the best in Jamaica), and sunbathe naked by Coward's pool: the diplomat John Pringle recalled the day he was invited to meet the king of English theatre, and walked in to find Vivien Leigh draped decorously and strategically over her husband's groin. John Gielgud could be found on Blue Harbour's beachside balcony, "admiring his own profile", as one veteran Jamaican writer observed; and Kate Hepburn would zoom up the drive in a sports car, with Irene Selznick in the passenger seat.

Years later, when I interviewed Hepburn in her Upper Eastside house, she told me how frustrating it was that Noel could never be persuaded to play tennis, preferring to lie by his pool, naked, of course, watching his friends. And of Coward's friends and neighbours, he was most interested in the affair between lan Fleming, who lived close by at Goldeneye, and Blanche Blackwell, the glamorous scion of an old plantation family.

Blanche (whose son, Chris Blackwell, would go on to found the Island record label) denied the possibility of an affair with the womanising creator ofjames Bond. Determined to stop the rumour, "One night I got on my horse over to his house," she told me. "I said know what you think, and it isn't true'." summer, romance did indeed develop his friends.

Meanwhile Fleming's society hostess wife Anne - the model for Volcano's Melissa - was conducting her own affair with Hugh Gaitskell. It was a complicated web of intrigue which gave Coward ample material for his play. In Volcano themes of sexual love clash with those of fidelity and loyalty, all to the ominous rumbling of impending volcanic explosion - a metaphor which Roy Marsden convincingly describes as "Ibsenesque". "You've got an empire which is rapidly imploding," notes Marsden. "and you're left with these islands of middle-class Englishmen, living in a world they can no longer afford". The rumbling of the volcano could alos be Jamaica's moves towards independence, less than a decade away.

In the play's decaying hothouse atmosphere not unlike prime Tennessee Williams, passion itself became a metaphor for a greater decay - the decay of values which Coward diagnosed in the post-war world. "You wreak too much havoc, swaggering through people's lives touting your illusion that physical love is 'the one irreplaceable ecstasy'," Adele tells Guy. "I'm tired of noise you make with your shrill. boastful trumpeting.

Please go away and leave me alone." And she dashes to the floor the shells which in real life the scuba-diving Fleming brought Blanche Blackwell as love-tokens from the Caribbean reef. The shattered shells seem to represent the shards into which paradise is about to break.

It was a paradox of Coward's life that when he was happy in his public life, his private life suffered: perhaps the neuroses and breakdowns of the 1920s, during Coward's meteoric rise to fame, betray the private cost of fame. He may have been the highest earning author in the world in 1930, but he felt the ice thin beneath his feet, and his solution was to escape to some exotic clime where he wouldn't have to sing "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" for the thousandth time.

Yet when his career "went down the dumper" (in Pet Shop Boy and longtime Coward fan Neil Tennant's memorable phrase), Coward's personal life provided the security he needed. At the time of writing Volcano, he was comfortable in his partnership with Graham Payn, a glamorous, glossy haired young actor from South Africa, who provided the emotional stability Coward needed.

Anyone coming to Thursday night's opening with the usual preconceptions will be surprised, to say the least. There's no pussyfooting around the subject of sex and passion, as you might expect from a playwright of Coward's vintage. Yet for anyone with a little knowledge of the extraordinary trajectory of his career, it is clear that the play is the missing link between the pre-war high comedy (and deep tragedies) of Amanda and Elyot in Private Lives, the self-portrait of Garry Essendine in Present Laughter, and the almost shocking subjects of Coward's last play, Song at Twilight, with its overtly gay themes of an ageing homosexual writer confronted with his hypocrisy by his former wife.

Song at Twilight was produced in 1966, at the very end of Coward's active life. In an act of incredible bravery, Coward himself played the character of Sir Hugo Latymer (widely believed to be an acerbic portrait of Somerset Maugham). But when it came to the revealing line, delivered to Latymer by his ex-wife, "Homosexual tendencies in the past? You're as queer as a coot and have been all your life", Coward, trapped by own candour, found it almost impossible to bear and changed the line. It was as though he suddenly realised how much of himself he had revealed; as though one of those nude poolside snaps from Blue Harbour had been printed in the tabloid press.

But history changes things, as Coward knew. That year homosexuality was decriminalised, the Lord Chamberlain let go his censoring hold on the theatre. Song at Twilight indicates how far he might have gone without the shadow of censor always looming over him; and how far he might have continued, had not infirmity claimed him. "Oh God, curse my ageing body!" he cried, as he broke down in rehearsals.

Notably, Song at Twilight, directed by Sheridan Morley and starring Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, was one of the more successful productions to mark last year's centenary of Coward's birth, a celebration somewhat undermined by the lack of vision of other productions - something which this week's premiere of Volcano will go some way to redress. Philip Prowse did remarkable things with the embarrassingly imperialistic Cavalcade at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, wringing Weimar ecadence out of its "Twentieth-Century Blues" number; and Philip Franks directed a wonderfully serious Private Lives at the National which annoyed the critics by perceiving Strindbergian drama in Coward's high comedy.

But where were the really ground-breaking productions? Why no Semi-Monde, another riperformed Coward piece in which half the cast are gay (an outrageous concept for 1926)? Or the equally under-exposed Post-Mortem, a vitriolic anti-war polemic, written in 1930? Without new blood, some reasoned, there would be no way the Coward corpus would survive into a second centenary.

Part of the problem lay in the pre-empting of the 1999 centenary by the events of the previous year. BBC2's Arena broadcast a lavish three-and-a-half hour trilogy on Coward. At the same time Neil Tennant assembled a starry array of British pop talent to record Coward cover versions for the Red Hot Aids charity, Twentieth-Century Blues, for which the likes of Sir Elton John, the Pet Shop Boys, Sir Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry, Robbie Willams and the Divine Comedy radically reworked the Coward songbook. Never had anyone extracted such drug-addicted decadence out of "Poor Little Rich Girl" as did Suede's Brett Anderson, imbuing the 1920s debutante with all the neuroses of a modern It Girl, "crawling from room to room". The project quickly gathered critical plaudits proposing Coward as the first Brit Pop artist, the true creator of Cool Britannia.

To some extent, the sheer glamour of these two projects overshadowed the events of 1999: the founding of the Noel Coward Society, the reissue of every published Coward play by Methuen, and the first ever academic Coward conference, organised by Joel Kaplan at the University of Birmingham (where, it has now been revealed, Graham Payn intends to deposit the Coward archive, currently held in a Swiss bank vault, for scholarly research). Coward would have been amazed to hear his work dissected by Oxbridge academics: the results are about to be published by Methuen under the title Look Back In Pleasure: Noel Coward Reassessed.

Even the culture secretary Chris Smith turned up to deliver a remarkably well-informed speech at the unveiling, by the Queen Mother at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, of a statue to commemorate Coward's actual centenary on 16 December. Another statue was set in place at Firefly, now owned (like Fleming's Goldeneye) by Chris Blackwell, and visited by a new celebrity conclave of Naomi Campbell, Bono, and Sean Connery all paying their respects to the Master's last resting-place - his grave on the brow of Firefly Hill, where he was buried in 1973.

Such events are a barometer of Coward's current standing. Far from being consigned to the dustbins of theatrical history, interest in Coward is greater than it has been for 50 years. The film ofRelative Values, starringjuhe Andrews, Stephen Fry and Colin Firth, is released in June; and among the many other Coward works in preproduction, another late play, Quadiffle, is sitting in Madonna's in-tray, and according to writer Mark Ashurst, who has championed the revival, a film version is on the cards. Ironically, the very plays which had seen Coward's critical credit fall are now being made into movies.

Noel Coward has not only survived the 20th century, he has been launched into the cyberspace of the 21st: the new Coward website (www.noelcoward.net) registered 42,000 hits in its first month. People are beginning to realise there's more to the Master than cocktails and laughter.

"Volcano" opened on Wednesday last at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea, tel.. 01702 342 564.
 
Philip Hoare's book, Noel Coward.. A Biography " is published by Random House, £9.95. "Look Back In Pleasure: Noel Coward Reassesed" will be published later this year by Methuen.
 

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