This weekend I caught a matinee of Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in London. First thing of note: it was the first piece of modern theatre I’ve seen outside Stratford for quite a while (does Joe Wright’s production of Pinero/Marber’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar count? Mind you, compared to Shakespeare…). So after having spent most of the year watching plays in a thrust stage auditorium, I found myself in a traditional proscenium arch set-up. So that was slightly odd (one gets so used to having the actors so very close to you after a time), but it’s perhaps a reminder to myself that I need to see a lot more theatre outside of Stratford. Another thing of note: many seats in the Upper Circle and Dress Circle were vacant throughout the performance (although, from where I could see, the stalls were relatively packed, barring a few empty seats). That’s a shame, considering Jonathan Kent’s production was worth passing the afternoon for.
I don’t claim much of an expert opinion on Coward: my only exposure to him was reading Private Lives on the bus home from Galway in the second year of my degree, and I remember really, really enjoying it (and somehow managing not to get seriously carsick). As far as I know — and anyone who has a more far-ranging knowledge of Irish theatre history than I do is welcome to prove me wrong — you wouldn’t see many of Coward’s plays in the repertory back in Ireland either, so the most exposure you’d have to his work is through reading them. Again, a great shame.
As far as my understanding of the play in performance goes, the play can’t really work if you don’t believe in Elyot and Amanda, and if you don’t sense the chemistry and passion (in more ways than one) between them on the stage. In that sense, they’re a sort of anti-Romeo and Juliet: the performance just won’t work if they don’t convince you. Perhaps the greatest success of this production is the casting, then, as Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor are absolutely outstanding as the lead pair. Stephens especially has a gift for comic timing and pratfalling (well, myself and Miss Mickum knew that already, from watching Vexed): his gasp of mock horror when Victor calls him a drunkard, and his response to Sibyl’s ‘Where are you going?’ (‘Canada’ is the sharp reply) are hilarious. He’s caddish, alarmingly brute-like, very immature, and somehow very likeable. Chancellor’s Amanda is more than a match for him: she’s flighty, glamorous, stubborn, and ready to dance to The Rite of Spring just to annoy her ex-husband. Even though she’s just as prone to losing her temper as he is — the final moments of Act II are utter chaos, as Elyot is rained on with anything from roses to sheet music, and just barely missing being hit by cups and saucers — she also displays hints of vulnerability. Perhaps Elyot is the same, as well: the two spend most of Act II clinging to one another, terrified of repeating history before everything goes to pot just before the interval.
They’re ably supported by Anna-Louise Plowman (Stephens’ wife in real life, fact fans) as Sibyl and Anthony Calf as Victor: one needy, insecure, and dressed in ludicrous taffeta (Elyot’s ‘Oh God’ sums it up precisely); the other bad-tempered, blustering, and fiercely proud. It’s particularly funny to watch these two tear seven shades out of one another towards the play’s end — made even more the funnier by Elyot and Amanda’s silent and amused (and eventually, quite bored) presence in the background. Sue Kelvin’s Louise is only unintelligible due to my poor French, but perhaps that was the point: you got the sense that she was perhaps having the last laugh on those who couldn’t understand her.
A final note about set design, and other things: I’ll never get tired of revolving sets. Good that we’re got that out of the way. Compared to the simple corresponding balconies of Act I (signposting how the two married couples seem to mirror each other throughout the scene), Amanda’s Paris apartment is a luxurious haven surrounded with plush beds and throws, vinyls, and numerous paraphernalia. Stephens and Chancellor lounge around such a place in their pyjamas during Act II, jokingly claiming that they’re ‘living in sin’. Whilst such sentiments are a reminder that we’re still in the early 1930s, thankfully Kent’s production is not. Elyot’s complaint about Amanda’s sleeping around, an activity he claims is the reserve of men, is deeply misogynistic, but here — and perhaps Stephens’ pratfalling plays a part in this — he becomes the butt of the joke rather than the joke reflecting more on Amanda. Perhaps it is another manifestation of how our cultural attitudes can shape our reception to plays written before our generation (see W. B. Worthen and Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance for this), but Elyot’s sexism is held up as baseless posturing. I can’t account for the entire audience, nor should I account for the reception towards the play’s original performance, but for me on that Saturday afternoon, Elyot’s sexism wasn’t glorified. Amanda laughs at him for being very outdated, and so do we.
So, perhaps you should get yourself a ticket while they last. Runs until 21 September 2013.