One of the wonderful ways we were able to utilize The Noel Coward Foundation’s grant in furthering the mission of The Antaeus Academy was by asking Noel Coward experts to act as mentors to the young directors taking on these readings.
Jonathan Lynn mentored Douglas Clayton’s direction of HAY FEVER, one of Coward’s most beloved plays. We asked Jonathan about Coward and his experience with Antaeus.
1. Where is Hay Fever ‘s place in the Coward canon?
Coward was prolific. However, there are four outstanding plays that are continually revived, stand the test of time and somehow seem to capture definitively both their period and what everyone thinks of as the Noel Coward style. They are Hay Fever, Private Lives, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit. Many of the other plays are excellent and well crafted, but these four have been consistently and continuously popular with the public.
2. Why would audiences today be interested in the story of Hay Fever?
It’s about a hilariously dysfunctional theatrical family, and their effect on the ‘civilians’ who come into contact with them. The four members of the Bliss family have no manners at all, and behave as many of us might like to but few of us would dare. Drama allows us to live vicariously, saying and doing what we secretly want to do or say. When we laugh we are, in fact, owning up. It’s a recognition that what we see enacted on the stage is true. That’s why we bark with recognition. Like the dogs do, when we come home.
If we don’t recognize some truth about ourselves, truth even if heightened or exaggerated for comic effect, we don’t find the comedy funny. We say it’s silly or stupid. But if we laugh we’re saying “I’ve said that, I’ve done that. I’ve thought that” or, more likely, “I wish I’d said that or done that”.
Four people from the real world go down to the Bliss’s country cottage for a weekend in the country and have an awful time. It’s not happening to us, so we love it.
Apart from that, all the characters are drawn with wit and insight, and the writing is an object lesson in farcical comedy. The most galling thing about the play is that Coward wrote it in three days at the age of 24. He was, of course, a genius.
3. What would younger audiences find interesting or appealing about Noel Coward and his plays?
I think I’ve answered that. Younger audiences are no so unlike older audiences. They’ll like it because its funny.
4. What kind of training or experience do you think emerging actors need before they step into a Coward piece?
All good comedy, and Coward’s plays are no exception, require precision above all else. Ap[art from that, they require things that can’t be taught – immaculate timing and an eye for the ridiculous.
5. How did you work with the director and actors during the Intensive?
We sat around the table and worked meticulously through the play, stopping to consider what Coward might have intended with every moment and looking to find the comic rather than the dramatic choice.
6. Do you have any advice for the actors in this reading before they embark on their own?
The same advice I have for all actors in a comedy: no characters should ever know they are funny.
Filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist Jonathan Lynn’s prolific career spans nearly four decades and includes directing, writing, producing and acting in motion pictures, television and theatre as well as authoring best-selling books.
Prior to that, Lynn directed the “screwball noir” movie THE WHOLE NINE YARDS (2000), a critical and audience favorite that featured Bruce Willis, Matthew Perry and Amanda Peet, and dominated the US box-office for three weeks. Lynn wrote and directed his first feature film CLUE (1985), a comedy/mystery based on the popular board game with an all-star cast. Lynn solved the complex who-done-it with three different endings, all of which were screened at different theaters and are now on the DVD/video. Lynn then directed his own screenplay NUNS ON THE RUN (1990), which starred Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane, and the acerbic comedy MY COUSIN VINNY (1992), which launched Marisa Tomei’s career and earned her an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. Lynn’s THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN, starring Eddie Murphy, was released in 1992. He followed with GREEDY (1994) featuring Michael J. Fox and Kirk Douglas; SGT. BILKO (1996) with Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd; and TRIAL AND ERROR (1997) starring Michael Richards and Charlize Theron.
It was the 1980’s BBC phenomena YES, MINISTER and YES, PRIME MINISTER that initially propelled Lynn to fame in his native Great Britain.
From 1977 to 1981 Lynn served as Artistic Director of The Cambridge Theatre Company, where he produced more than forty plays, twenty of which he directed. The company’s production of Macbeth featuring Brian Cox toured the United Kingdom and India and staged a special performance for then Prime Minister Mrs Ghandi. Lynn went on to direct one of the companies at the National Theatre of Great Britain, which performed his Society of West End Theatres award-winning production of Three Men on a Horse (1987).
Lynn directed numerous plays that appeared throughout London beginning in the mid 1970s. They include: The Glass Menagerie (1977), working with Tennessee Williams; Songbook (1979), which won the Society of West End Theatres Award, the Ivor Novello Award and the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical; Anna Christie (1979-80), at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and London; A Little Hotel on the Side by Georges Feydeau, adapted by John Mortimer at the National Theatre; Pass the Butler (1982), written by Eric Idle and staged at the Globe Theatre; and Joe Orton’s Loot (1984) starring Leonard Rossiter, staged first at the Ambassadors and Lyric Theatres.
Lynn just completed work on his new film WILD TARGET starring Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Rupert Grint and Rupert Everett. His screenplay The Prenup, has recently been optioned by producer Dan Keston.
Jonathan Lynn received an MA in Law from Cambridge University, an Honorary MA from the University of Sheffield and an Honorary PhD from the American Behavioral Studies Institute. He currently lives in Los Angeles.