Manitoba·Preview

Nothing to fear at CowardFest: MTC opens master playwright fest

The fifteenth edition of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Master Playwright Festival marks a first - after exploring the work of heavyweights like Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, and Bertolt Brecht, the festival this year focuses on the work of a writer known primarily for comedy.

15th annual Master Playwright Festival offers in-depth look at Noël Coward

Eric Blais (left) and Laura Olafson (right) in Private Lives. (Bruce Monk)

The fifteenth edition of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Master Playwright Festival marks a first — after exploring the work of heavyweights like Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, and Bertolt Brecht, the festival this year focuses on the work of a writer known primarily for comedy.

Noël Coward (1899 - 1973) is best known for witty comedies about people behaving badly, like Private Lives (RMTC’s entry in the festival) and Hay Fever (currently being presented by the University of Manitoba’s Black Hole Theatre Company).

He also, though, branched into songwriting, acting (including a turn in the original version of The Italian Job) and even a bit of espionage during the Second World War.

And what makes Coward a “master” playwright? In a recent interview with Terry MacLeod on  CBC Radio’s Weekend Morning Show, U of M theatre professor Margaret Groome (who directs Hay Fever) cited his range as an artist — but also the surprises in his comedic plays.

“People mistakenly think of the plays as being light and fluffy,” she says. “In fact, there is more going on. You have the challenge, at one and the same time, of having to play the comedy, and really get that dazzling high comedy style. And yet, there are also serious themes going on.”

This year, community, student and independent theatre companies will join RMTC to offer 13 production of plays by (or inspired by) Coward, three readings, three film screenings and a musical revue.

It all officially kicks off Jan. 28 with the first of two lectures, including the “Introducing Coward” talk (presented by Groome) at the King’s Head Pub.

3 other productions to watch for at CowardFest:

  • Blithe Spirit (Echo Theatre): One of two shows (along with Hay Fever) that got an early start at the festival, Blithe Spirit is already packing its tiny house. Presented at Ralph Conor House in the Gates, this intimate production is one of Coward’s better-known comedies and features an impressive cast of Winnipeg professionals. (Jan. 24 - Feb. 13)

  • Mad Dogs and Englishmen (zone41 Theatre): One of the festival’s most promising entries may also be its hottest ticket  you’ve got just one chance to see this one. Local independent company zone41 brings Stratford regular Ben Carlson in to present Robert Cushman’s Mad Dogs, a play with music that sees Coward reflecting on his life and work. (Feb. 7 only)

  • You Were There: A Shadowplay (Pocket Frock Productions): A “contemporary re-imagining” of a one-act Coward play featuring some talented young local performers, from a company with a strong track record at the Fringe Festival. (Feb. 6 - 14)

CowardFest runs at venues around the city until Feb. 15.