Toni Kanal is appearing in Michael Grandage's inaugural production at the Donmar: Noël Coward's The Vortex, which began previews Dec. 5 and opens Dec. 10.
Theatrenow met her at the Covent Garden hotel, just 'round the corner from the Donmar, as she prepared for a dress rehearsal.
What part are you playing in The Vortex? "I'm Preston, the housekeeper."
Coward has come in for some flack about the way he treats working-class characters. Do you think that's fair? "The Vortex is a very early play, and his first big hit. My character is only on in the first act — which is set in town — the other acts are in the country. It's a well-written part but not a major one in terms of the action of the play, and the character isn't meant to draw attention to herself — as a housekeeper, she's meant to be efficient and discreet, so he doesn't patronize or poke fun at her. "I think he wrote up working-class characters more in his later plays, so that's where any issues about his attitudes to class would crop up."
You starred, a couple of years ago, in Coward's last play, Song at Twilight, so you've had the rare chance of appearing in plays at either ends of his writing career. "Yes, it's an unusual experience! I was understudy to both Vanessa Redgrave and Kika Markham in Song at Twilight, at the Gielgud Theatre. I went on a couple of times for Kika, who was playing the wife of an aging, distinguished and closet gay writer — played by Corin Redgrave. I also went on, and quite a lot — something like 12 or 14 times — for Vanessa, who played Carlotta, the writer's ex-mistress."
You were very glamorous as Carlotta... "Thank you! It was a fun role to play, and it's nice to dress up on stage — though as it was a very late play, in the late 1960's, it's a different sort of glamour to that usually associated with Noël Coward.
"When people think of Coward, its either in connection with the 1920's, like The Vortex, or the 1930's, like Private Lives. Song at Twilight was written and set in the late 1960's, and although there were plenty of examples of Coward's humor, it was a darker — about the whole gay issue — and more obviously modern play than people were expecting. I think it would have been fascinating not to have credited him as the author, and to have seen what people would have made of it — or to ask them to guess who the author was!"
In many ways it was more like a Rattigan play? "Exactly. It had the same quality of stiff upper lips hiding deep emotion, and a sense of the pain beneath the well-mannered exterior. Which isn't the same as The Vortex, where the emotions are really let rip. The Vortex is a marvelous play with a great role for a leading actress, playing a mother with toy boys and a drug-addict son. The scene between them when they let go at each other is electrifying."
What do you think is the secret of Coward's continued appeal? "It sounds like damning with faint praise, but actually it's because audiences know they'll get something elegant, amusing, with the typical cadences and rhythms of speech you associate with him — and they feel safe, in the sense they know they're going to get a particular type of evening at the theatre.
"But that's expectations rather than reality. What keeps him fresh, and interesting, and sends audiences out feeling they've had an interesting night at the theatre rather than just a cozy one, is that he isn't safe. He surprises you, because there's far more to his plays than the surface comedy.
"That was certainly the case with Song at Twilight, which as we've discussed, wasn't a typical Coward at all, though people went to it because it was by Coward and starring the Redgraves. And it's certainly the case with The Vortex, which despite being written and set in the 1920's has an incredibly modern feel to it.
"I can understand why Michael [Grandage] grabbed the rights to the play some time ago. It's been fascinating to see him in rehearsals. Because I'm not in the last two acts I can sit at the side and watch, and although he must know the text like the back of his hand, he's always completely engrossed in the action, and his face registers every emotion, as if he's watching it for the first time. If we can have the same effect on the audience as we have on him, then we'll be a hit!"
The Vortex opens on Dec. 10 and runs to Feb. 15, 2003.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow