Craig Walker directs Noel Coward’s Private Lives in an interesting fashion – one which all audiences may not agree with but which I enjoyed. Instead of treating the play as a glittering bauble of witty repartee – a comedy about a devil-may-care pair of sophisticated lovers – Walker treats it as a dramatic comedy in which we’re intended to sympathize with the plight of two people who can’t live without each other but can’t live with each other, either.
Since this is a very popular play to stage, you’re probably familiar with the plot. Two couples are on honeymoon; they are staying in adjoining suites in a swank Deauville hotel. The cynical Elyot Chase has just married a sweet young thing named Sybil, 11 years his junior. They are obviously incompatible. The pompous Victor Prynne has wed a fiery woman of the world, Amanda. More incompatibility. But the kicker is that Elyot was married to Amanda for 3 explosive years 5 years ago. And though acrimoniously divorced, they still carry a torch for each other. Once Elyot and Amanda meet, in a matter of minutes they decide to run away together, leaving their respective spouses behind. They decamp to Amanda’s apartment in Paris and, for awhile, are blissfully happy. Initially they manage to avoid the bickering which inevitably leads to knock-down drag-out fights. But despite their avowed intention to laugh at everything, the second act ends with just such a fight. Just as the curtain is about to fall on Act 2, Victor and Amanda arrive at the apartment. The third act takes place the next morning, where all four play a sort of truth-or-dare game and (spoiler alert!), Elyot and Amanda disappear together to take a romantic round-the-world tour.
The other productions of Private Lives that I’ve seen have emphasized the brittle, sophisticated humour Elyot and Amanda unleash on each other and on their new spouses. The audience is expected to laugh at everything, along with Elyot and Amanda. But Walker does something different. Though there are plenty of laughs, courtesy of Coward’s witty dialogue, Elyot (David Whiteley) and Amanda (Alix Sideris) evoke our sympathy. They are believable as two people who are madly passionately in love with each other, yet who are incapable of having a conversation without starting to snipe at each other.
Their fight at the end of the second act was completely convincing. It elicited a few gasps from the audience, as they flung each other against the furniture. Very realistic spousal abuse. Kudos to fight directors Chris McLeod and John Brogan.
In the third act, first Elyot then Amanda belittle Victor (the excellent Steve Martin), who visibly wilts under their attack. Though Victor is a dull conventional fellow, I felt for him when, perhaps for the first time in his life, he must face the fact that he’s a lackluster lover and a bit of a coward.
With other productions of Private Lives, I enjoyed myself but I didn’t care 2 cents about the fate of Elyot and Amanda. With Walker’s production, I enjoyed myself and I cared about all the characters (well, perhaps not so much about Bronwyn Steinberg’s self-centred Sybil).
This is not to say that the production is uniformly excellent. Although Sideris is a fine actress, she’s not convincing as a 34-year old. The British accents – with the exception of Martin’s – come and go rather disconcertingly. The sets, while serviceable, don’t look sufficiently elegant.
There were some marvellous touches, however…everything from Martin’s 1930s’ style haircut to Whiteley and Sideris’s charming musical duet to the very entertaining song-and-dance routine between acts 1 and 2 by Martin, Steinberg and Camille Beauchamp. (The latter also plays Amanda’s Parisian maid, Louise.)
So, Plosive Productions has given us an interesting take on Coward’s classic.
Private Lives is on now until October 12. To purchase tickets, click here.