‘The approach unbalances the play entirely’: PRIVATE LIVES – Donmar Warehouse

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Donmar Warehouse, London – until 27 May 2023

The sun is setting on Michael Longhurst’s time at the Donmar Warehouse and his penultimate production is a timeless classic, Noel Coward’s sparky and charismatic relationship comedy about middle aged love, Private Lives, a fairly safe bet which this century alone has resulted in some great comic pairings from Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan to Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. But Coward’s work is tricky to get right and it always looks far easier than it really is. So while you can do much within the boundaries of his plays – tone it up, tone it down, change the sexuality of the characters and even their gender – what you cannot do is force the rhythm of Coward’s writing either by trying too hard to make it funny or by snarling up the purpose that Coward ascribes to make it mean something else instead.

Coward is a vastly misunderstood writer in contemporary theatre, often dismissed or caricatured as a creator of farcical fluff whose characters swan around with cigarette holders, drinking cocktails and dispensing witty bon mots. At the same time, Coward’s writing tends to be stultified and suffocated by its stage presentation, forever trapped in heavy sets and dreary 30s-inspired drawing rooms that hamper his spirited characters and their often wickedly complex love lives. Making Coward too cosy is a common problem, draining energy and resonance from his plots that can make the writer and his productions feel like escapist museum pieces.

But Coward is a searing social commentator, a writer who presented alternative forms of living, gave prominence to female sexuality in his work and explored the strange entanglements of love, lust and the burdensome reality of living with someone you cannot live without. There is a real equality in Coward’s writing that gives equivalent precedence to the affairs and needs of men and women, and nowhere is this more prominent than in arguably his greatest marriage play, Private Lives in which former spouses Elyot and Amanda find themselves back in each other’s lives and at each other’s throats once again despite both having just married other people.

There is a fine but perfect balance in this play, neither character is better or worse than the other, both remain sympathetic enough to keep the audience entertained for three Acts and both behave appallingly in equal measure. They have to be an equal match in order for the roundabout of love and loathing to work effectively as well as making sense of the shifting power play that motors the crucial second Act.

Longhurst’s production for the Donmar has a good go at the play, taking it out of the fusty interpretations that could quickly derail the stylish French setting and establishing an openness about the characters’ sexual shenanigans that lead to betrayal and resentment as past and present mix. But the interpretation misses this key supposition that Amanda and Elyot have to be equals for the delicately balanced comedy to work, instead introducing a darker abusive relationship and domestic violence subtext that seems to grasp for contemporary relevance without quite understanding enough about Coward’s purpose.

The Private Lives webpage mentions only that there will be smoking on stage but buried away in the Donmar website there is a content warning for ‘scenes of adultery, sexual coercion, verbal and physical abuse on stage’ but this isn’t quite strong enough to cover the intensity of sequences in which Elyot grabs Amanda by the throat and throws her onto a sofa. A similar pattern emerges in Act Three as the bickering Sibyl and Victor edge towards a mirorred encounter, the actor playing Victor about to grab Sibyl by the neck as the lights go out.

This approach unbalances the play entirely and makes little sense of the ongoing attraction between Elyot and Amanda – who notably shows no sign of trauma or physical fear of her ex-husband at any other point in the play. In fact, at the start of Act Three, she even plays down the spat between them in ways that don’t seem like a woman trying to conceal a pattern of domestic abuse but an embarrassment that the couple were observed losing control and behaving so badly to one another.

And this is because Coward never intended for violence to be the focus of this particular story, Elyot and Amanda are two people who are addicted to one another and shouldn’t be together because they create a mercurial, toxic relationship. The language they use and their attitudes to one another are certainly of their time and worthy of further consideration, but this is a comedy that gets physical in which Amanda has to be an equal partner in that for it to work. Coward wrote plenty of serious material but that’s not what Private Lives was intended to be and nor does this emphasis make sense within the wider perspective of the play.

This added domestic abuse angle is called out in the Donmar’s performance in these moments of bristling violence by Jack Knowles’ lighting design and Simon Slater’s composition that heighten and hone in on these actions. But it completely alters the balance across the entire play, giving all the power to Elyot who not only poses a physical danger to the women he marries but simultaneously loses any sympathy or purpose in the story. It becomes impossible to believe that Amanda would be swept up in the romance of seeing him again in Deauville and agree to run out on her new husband to be with a man who abused her. Likewise, at the play’s conclusion when the pair seek to escape the warring exes Sibyl and Victor, why would Amanda leave with a man who frightened and violently attacked her the previous evening. By taking Coward’s original meaning out of context, this production uses this interpretation as a dramatic device to distinguish itself from earlier versions of the play without giving due time to properly consider what this means or its effect on the women of the story other than in the moments in which the violence is happening. As a result, a very serious subject is treated too lightly, completely unbalancing the psychology and comic rhythm of the play.

The secondary effect is to make Elyot a deeply unsympathetic character from the start with Stephen Mangan’s interpretation emphasising the boorish, patriarchal nature of the character from his first moments on the balcony, often raising his voice to shout at his much younger wife, his former partner and, in Act Three, at Victor as well. It also entirely divests Elyot of his charm, something which the writer carefully layers into the character to make him a little exaggerated and silly, even deliberately outrageous but never the outright and irredeemable brute that he seems to be in this production. Elyot can be sulky and childlike, louche and uncaring at times, even selfish but he has to have charisma, to know the things that he says are nonsense and often said for effect or to create reactions, but making him an abuser with a developed pattern of behaviour and misogynistic tendencies to the women in his life that he makes unreasonable demands of and you lose the audience in the first scene.

And it is a shame because there are lots of other things about this production of Private Lives that work really nicely including a freeing approach to interpreting Coward’s text that speaks to the universal experience of love and relationships in which characters fall for the wrong person, Amanda refuses to be shamed for taking a number of lovers between her marriages while the boundaries between love, lust and bad habits are nicely blurred in ways that feel recognisable. Coward has such a deep understanding of human desire and how it makes people behave resulting in petty jealousy, resentment, and the big and little hurts that come with all of that, and he writes with understanding about the things people sacrifice for even the brief period of happiness that Elyot and Amanda are afforded by this play. Relationships in Coward’s work are defining and consuming but they are awfully messy and often fail to provide a neat, happy ending which comes across well in Longhurst’s interpretation as the romance of being newly weds very quickly smacks against the reality of the person they have married.

Rachel Stirling is the reason to watch this version of Private Lives and she seems very comfortable inhabiting Amanda, bringing great comic timing and towering certainty to the role. Amanda is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants, decisive and often brutally frank, Stirling gives her a no-nonsense maturity, unwilling to compromise for anything less than a perfect outcome. But this Amanda is impulsive and emotionally unreserved, allowing as much love to flow out to Elyot as loathing a few moments later, and Stirling navigates the comedy mishaps of Act One, the changing rhythms of Act Two and the haughty disdain for everyone in Act Three really well. And while she takes the over-egged abuse in her stride, this is a very nicely pitched comic performance that does much of the heavy lifting.

Mangan though hasn’t quite got the measure of Elyot yet, he is too shouty and often too forceful in the comic lines that should flow effortlessly. The timing is great and there is skill in being able to deliver a comedy performance but Coward, like Oscar Wilde, is all in the writing, they provide the rhythm that will take the actor to the right point and pushing too hard signals and then stifles the laugh. Act Three is better when the more sarcastic and exhausted Elyot drops all pretence of civility but ahead of Press Night later this week, Mangan needs to inject a lightness into this performance, a bit more levity that will find Elyot’s charm and attractiveness, making him an equally comic rather than a forbidding presence.

Secondary performances from Laura Carmichael as Sibyl and Sargon Yelda as Victor make much of fairly small roles but both actors grow into their big scenes in Act Three as they try to deal with their respective marital failures while finding themselves in the same contentious cycle. The potent but cheap music that Amanda refers to is provided by a couple of live musicians which add to the atmosphere, although an end of interval sequence in which the cellist refuses to leave the stage is a little baffling.

The whole production takes place on Hildegard Bechtler’s 1930s double-balcony set that stages the first Act at the circle level. It is a shame that the main stage is covered in a blue tarpaulin that proves unconvincing as the Deauville sea with quite obvious furniture evident underneath which slightly spoils the effect, but the swift reveal in Act Two as the balconys move backwards and the sheet reveals a chic apartment that is heavily decorated but very stylish. It doesn’t quite have the representative approach that gave the Old Vic’s glorious Present Laughter such contemporary appeal but Bechtler has caught the tone of the era in the plush and silky surroundings.

This production has clearly done some careful thinking about the play and the version it wanted to present but it hasn’t always made the right choices. Coward is harder than it looks and while it is interesting and important to question the language and behaviours in classic plays and to explore new ways to engage with troubling content, these decision still need to make sense within the context of the story and the character arcs it presents. Noel Coward isn’t a playwright who needs ‘updating’ in this way, his social commentary and analysis of relationships is all there, we just need to stop crushing it.

Private Lives is at the Donmar Warehouse until 27 May with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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