The West Australian (Perth)
September 21, 2005 Wednesday

Coward's Singapore fling


By the age of 29, successful London playwright Noel Coward was
feeling exhausted. His doctor suggested that he would soon have a
nervous breakdown if he didn't take a holiday.

So Coward headed by sea to China and South-East Asia for a six-month
rest and recreational tour. The travel obviously stimulated his
creative juices because while he was in Shanghai, he wrote Private
Lives, still regarded as one of his wittiest plays.

As he pushed down through Asia, Coward's male companion took ill with
dysentery and the pair hurried on to Singapore where proper medical
treatment was available.

Coward stayed at the Raffles Hotel while his friend was recovering
and while in this colonial outpost, he volunteered to take part in a
production of N.C. Sherriff's anti-war play, Journey's End.

One of the actors from a company of English touring players named The
Quaints had been injured and Coward, who enjoyed acting as much as
writing, stepped into his role.

This much is history but Perth playwright John Aitken blends these
facts of Coward's time in Singapore with his own imagination to
produce his new play, Imperial Facade.

Coward will be played by John Michael Swinbank, who has made his own
cabaret career singing the songs of the multi-talented writer, actor
and composer.

Swinbank has even performed his own show about Coward at Singapore's
famous Raffles Hotel, so is well-prepared for his role in Aitken's

Around the central character of Coward, the playwright has created
several historical and fictional characters to tell his story. One of
the real characters is Raffles owner-manager Tigran Sarkies, one of a
family of Armenians who built the hotel.

Aitken's storyline does take some liberties with Sarkies' character,
however, weaving him into an incident in which an Asian woman was
supposedly ordered off the dance floor for fraternising with the
white colonials.

There is some evidence that Coward intervened in this incident to
remonstrate with Sarkies over his racist behaviour, though versions
of the tale differ in the historical accounts.

A rather more fictional character invented by Aitken is a Chinese
princess. She comes to Singapore looking for her brother, who has
fallen in with the Tong, or Singapore-Chinese mafia. But the Chinese
princess is not quite what she seems and is revealed to be a male.
The princess is played by Gary Tong, who grew up in Carnarvon and in
recent years has become a star in the Malaysian film industry. Tong
has also just completed a new Australian film in Melbourne.

"The play is very much about the various facades that people build up
around themselves," says Aitken. "The Chinese princess is obviously
not quite what she seems and everyone in the colonial society of the
time was not quite what they appeared to be."

One of the most obvious facades, says Aitken, was that of Coward
himself, whose public image was that of the romantic male lead, the
kind of man of charm, wit and sophistication that women swooned over.

"It was not true," says Aitken, "because Noel was really a gay man.
In my play, he falls in love with one of the actors from the touring
company, The Quaints."

As Aitken explains, the real-life company was a down-at-heel bunch of
actors who toured throughout Asia in a hand-to-mouth kind of
existence. Among its members was a young English actor named John
Mills, with whom the real Coward struck up a friendship that would
later lead to Mills' roles in such Coward films as the wartime naval
drama, In Which We Serve.

No play about Coward would be complete without some of his songs and
Swinbank will serve up some of his classics such as Mad About the
Boy, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and Don't Put Your Daughter on the
Stage, Mrs Worthington - all written during his Far East adventures.

The songs will be accompanied by leading Perth pianist Mark Coughlan.

Imperial Facade runs from September 27 to October 15 at Rechabites
Hall, William Street, Northbridge. Tickets at BOCS