Ten hours in the theatre over the course of one sunny weekend may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you’re a Noël Coward fan and have a craving for the use of the word gay within a decidedly heterosexual context then you will definitely want to take part in the ongoing marathon of Coward one-acts that are currently being staged at the Shaw Festival.
The genius of Sir Noël’s 10-play series Tonight at 8:30 lies in the fact that he was able to slyly insert sexual and political innuendo into what initially appears to be very ordinary, often familial settings. From the repeatedly chaste but sexually charged meetings of two married strangers in a train station in Still Life, to the riotous goings-on of a posh navy couple in Hands Across the Sea, audiences are treated to a panoply of matrimonial mayhem that questions the very foundations upon which straight marriage is based. Monogamy and colonialism are given a run for their money in almost all of the pieces, and an impressive variety of straight men and women come off looking like a stable of glamorous desperados seeking something they will never fully attain.
Coward’s own largely closeted public life, revealed openly in his published letters and by his longtime companion Graham Payn after his death, seems to have fuelled his genius for depicting the tragicomic trials and tribulations of people attracted to the frequently short-lived bliss of initial attraction that can quickly move into the often arduous task of remaining true to one’s significant other. In a period rife with debates over same-sex unions these plays are sharp, witty and frequently poignant reminders that marriage, of any kind, may not be the most fruitful decision when it comes to long-term romance and desire.
Highlights from this theatrical decathalon include a brilliant production of the three one-acts comprising Play, Orchestra, Play. Director Christopher Newton’s collaboration with designer Cameron Porteous and video artist Tyler Devine is a brilliant melding of high-tech scenic expertise and skilled staging that runs the gamut from vaudeville routines in Red Peppers, to the impassioned family drama of Fumed Oak.
The acting ensemble includes breathtaking performances by Steven Sutcliffe, Patty Jamieson, Wendy Thatcher and Julie Martell. Deborah Hay (also starring divinely in the Shaw production of Born Yesterday) is flawless as she takes on three diverse roles in the plays comprising Brief Encounters, giving her 35 seconds to change character and costume between each of the three one-acts.
Tonight at 8:30 has not been presented in its entirety since the original London and New York productions in 1936. Artistic director Jackie Maxwell’s decision to mount the entire masterpiece is an ambitious and impressive coup for the festival and a rare, triumphant challenge for the ensemble of actors, directors and designers. The New York Times recently applauded Maxwell’s decision to bring all of the plays to the festival this season, and highlighted her very astute claim that Coward’s plays possess a truly subversive edge that appeals to a broad audience.
Any avid theatregoers interested in seeing a once-in-a-lifetime marathon of perfect gemlike productions peopled by philanderers, suicidal shrinks and delightfully gay (that is carefree) couples should make the trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake for some grand and Coward-ly fun and games — all in the name of “gay” love.