Volume 74, Number 33 | December 22 - 28, 2004

By Noel Coward
Adapted from Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan.”
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street

Kathleen Widdoes as the Duchess of Berwick in the American premiere of Noel Coward’s “After the Ball” at the Irish Repertory Theater.

Bringing back a Noel Coward piece

By Jerry Tallmer

Tony Walton was still in his teens — “a snotty teenager at the Slade School of Fine Art” — when in the summer of 1954 he saw a show he has never forgotten. In fact, he not only saw it over and over again, he dragged his classmates along to see it too.

The show, at the Globe Theatre, in London’s West End, was “After the Ball,” an operetta wrought by Noel Coward from Oscar Wilde’s stinging 1892 drama of good manners and bad delusions, “Lady Windermere’s Fan.”

Fifty years later, Tony Walton — 16 times a Tony nominee for his sets and/or costumes, three times a Tony winner, multiple Obie winner — still thinks so much of “After the Ball” that he, now as designer and director, has brought it back to life at Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly’s sparkling little Irish Repertory Theatre on West 22nd Street.

“The interesting thing about that original production,” Walton said at a tech break the other day, “was that Coward, who as a tax exile in Jamaica, B.W.I., could only come back to England a couple of weeks at a time, had handed over the staging and choreography to Robert Helpmann [best remembered in America from “The Red Shoes”and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” films].

“Helpmann had applied the ballet principle that ‘every little meaning as a movement all its own,’ so what you got was an enormously stylized and gestural performance. My fellow students would gasp with amazement at this strange staging.

“When Coward had managed to see it, in the pre-London tryout in Bristol, he was so upset that he said it shouldn’t be called ‘After the Ball’ but ‘St. Vitus’s Dance.’ He made them simplify it, but he had only two weeks to do that job, and much [of the Helpmann stuff] remained when the show reached London. For all the gesturing, you just couldn’t get close to the characters.”

Needless to say, Walton’s staging does not replicate Helpmann’s.

“The other problem [in 1954] was that Helpmann had cast a great star, the American soprano Mary Ellis, as Mrs. Erlynne [the adventuress who saves her oblivious daughter, Lady Windermere, from the scandal of exposure of a near-miss, unconsummated extramarital romance].

“They were thrilled to get Mary Ellis, but unbeknownst to Noel Coward, Mary Ellis had lost her chops. Helpmann didn’t want to bother Coward with this detail, but Coward, who had said in his diary: ‘The music [for “After the Ball”] is pouring out and I can scarce get to the piano without a melody creeping from my fingers, usually in keys that I am not used to and can’t play in,’ now had to cut most of Ellis’s songs.

“Her voice wasn’t the only thing lacking. When Helpmann apologized, Coward is supposed to have said: ‘Poor old duck couldn’t get a giggle if she pulled a kipper out of her cunt.’ I like to think he meant to say corset.”

Strangely enough, anagramatically, the Mrs. Erlynne of Walton’s production is actress/singer Mary Illes. She hasn’t lost her chops. Nor have these others: Kristin Huxhold as young, insecure Lady Windermere; Paul Carlin as her husband, Lord Windermere; David Staller as her would-be lover, Lord Darlington; Kathleen Widdoes as the Duchess of Berwick (and Narrator); Collette Simmons, Greg Mills, Josh Grisetti, Drew Eshelman, and Elizabeth Inghram.

The 1954 London production had 24 principal characters and a full orchestra. The Irish Rep production gives us 10 actors, five of whom are also musicians (on flute, cello, ukulele, oboe, trumpet). Music director Mark Hartman is at the piano.

To this playgoer and play reader, the Lady Windermere of “Lady Windermere’s Fam” is a bit of a ninny.

“Yes,” said Tony Walton with a half-smile, “it unfortunately does come across that way. But I think she’s not so much a ninny as a little crude. We’re taking the view that this is an autumn/spring marriage between Lord Windermere and Lady Windermere. So when Lord Darlington comes into her life . . . “ Walton’s open hand let the story tell itself.

“My parents,” he next said, “lived in the same area in which Coward grew up, in Teddington, outside London. My father was close to Coward’s age [Noel Coward’s span: 1899-1973], and he was a strong admirer of Coward. He introduced his work to us kids.”

Tony Walton’s father was orthopedic surgeon Lancelot Walton; the director’s mother, Dawn Drew Walton, was a niece of C. B. Cochran, the producer of all of Coward’s major hits.

“My father took my mother to watch a dress rehearsal of ‘Bitter Sweet’ when she was 16, and married her when she was 17. They were 11 years apart. I sometimes think of Lord Windermere and Lady Windermere as my parents.”

In some ways “After the Ball” was a comeback show for Noel Coward. “He’d fallen upon the postwar mentality, was being critically rejected as old hat. He behaved as if it didn’t affect him, but it really did. He’d had a tremendous success with ‘Bitter Sweet,’ an operetta that pointed the way, now, for another crack at operetta.

“It was always easier for Coward to write a piece if there was a surrogate for him in it. Here, his surrogate is Mrs. Erlynne, whose message essentially boils down to: ‘I travel alone.’ Just as Wilde also always had a surrogate, his surrogate in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ being Lord Darlington.”

The very first show that Tony Walton ever worked on in New York was a 1956-57 production at the Barbizon Plaza of Coward’s “Conversation Piece,” one great song of which is “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart.” Coward himself was on hand as supervising intelligence.

“I would plague him with questions about that 1954 ‘After the Ball,’ and as funny as Noel Coward could always be on anything, just couldn’t bring himself to be funny about this.”

The rehearsal pianist for “Conversation Piece” was a fellow named John Kander.

“I heard he was writing music, and I wondered whether he needed a lyricist,” says Tony Walton, “but then I had to go back to England for a bit. By the time I returned, this upstart named Fred Ebb had come along. I wonder whatever happened to them.”

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