Aiming for a Coward that will please fans and newcomers alike at the CFT

Katherine Kingsley and Rufus Hound. Photo Johan Persson
Katherine Kingsley and Rufus Hound. Photo Johan Persson

As he says, Rufus Hound can tell people he has performed at Chichester Festival Theatre before. Asked whether it was in the main house or the Minerva, he can truthfully answer it was neither.

His CFT debut was in the massive tent which was erected a few years ago during extensive refurbishment works to the main building.

Now, however, he’s perhaps truly making his debut, this time inside, starring as the womanising actor Garry Essendine in Noël Coward’s Present Laughter (until May 12).

Rufus concedes there will be tougher watches in the season ahead: “But it is lovely to be the amuse-bouches, the pre-meal cocktails for the season!

“Coward is all new to me. The draw for me was Coward on the one hand to the extent that obviously you have to respect this man who made such a huge contribution to British theatre, but really none of that had any particular resonance for me. It was really the director Sean Foley that got me interested and got me to read it, and knowing Sean’s work, that was when I thought he could turn this into something special.”

Before this, Rufus’ view of Coward was pretty much summed up in a line from the play itself, a line about wafting around in a dressing gown being witty.

“I just thought there was no depth to it, but once you get hold of the script and really start looking at it, you realise that there is depth there but that it is also an incredibly-funny play.”

Rufus is quick to point out, however, that times have most definitely changed in the nearly 80 years since the play first saw the light of day.

“Some of the emotional and moral suppositions that are made by the writer are just not the same today.

“So you have to ask ‘Do we do a faithful reproduction of every note?’ or ‘Do we, without changing the actual text, come up with a version of the comedy that won’t appear old-fashioned?’

“It is not about changing it, but we are going through times socially and politically where women are demanding that their voices are heard and that they are not dismissed and we are doing a play about an ageing Lothario whose close coterie of pals are all aware of his infidelities…

“It is a very funny play, but the thing you have got to be aware of in taking it to the stage is that we have got to look at how different the world is now.

“And then we have got to think whether we ignore that or whether we engage with it… and then at what level we engage with it.

“We have set out to make sure that this production of the play is the funniest it can be, but to do that, you have to choose who is the figure of fun, who are we laughing at.

“We are going to do a version of Coward where the aficionados can come along and think it is respectful but also a version where people who would never have thought of coming along to see a Coward – and that included me before this – will think that it is a very funny and brilliant play.”

As Rufus says, it is those moral certainties that have changed.

Coward projects a world where people don’t really have doubts, where they are invariably assured… where the people were the products of a nation which still had a massive empire.

“But you can’t do that now. Now it is much more ‘as long as nobody is offended’. We don’t have that certainty any more.

“There was a directness and a simplicity to the moral code (in the plays of Coward).”

Tickets available on www.cft.org.uk.

For other stories by Phil, see: https://www.chichester.co.uk/author/Phil.Hewitt2

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