In Michael Longhurst’s adaptation of Private Lives, you can really see why Noël Coward’s work receives such acclaim to the point of being replicated in TV shows like Frasier. An exercise in shredded glamour as Elyot Chase would put it, the dry and sardonic humour that permeates through every line twists this would-be scandalous love story into a comedically mundane case study on the nature of relationships.
A veritable old world rom-com
Elyot Chase (Stephen Mangan) is on his honeymoon with his new wife Sybil (Laura Carmichael), when he bumps into his ex-wife Amanda (Rachael Stirling) also on her honeymoon with her new husband Victor (Sargon Yelda). Escaping together to Paris, the couple soon become embroiled in a continuous cycle of passion and violence, teetering on the edge between love and hate. A playwright whose plays provide a running commentary on norms in an ever-changing social landscape, Coward sugar-coats bitter truths in frivolity and humour, creating an entertaining and effortless comedy. Longhurt’s direction appears to be an exercise in distance, especially notable in Act 2 when Amanda and Elyot’s relationship hits extreme highs and lows in a very short space of time.
Masking is inevitable on a thrust stage, but the actors' constant movement means that it is never long enough to actively frustrate us due to the perception that we’re missing something. The funniest moments come from the ‘Schollocks’ silences, because rarely do you encounter such deliberate silences that stretch to the point of uncomfortability in theatre. By resorting to non-verbal communication, Longhurst shows the increasing level of pettiness and confrontation in the interactions between Elyot and Amanda, which increasingly add to the mounting tension as the scene progresses.
Violence plays a large role in this play, as the characters move from verbal fighting to engaging with each other physically. With Kate Waters’ direction, the physical altercation between Elyot and Amanda initially acts as a jump-scare, that’s how shocking and sudden it is. Each fight looks incredibly realistic to the point where we are genuinely frightened for the actors. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is naturalistic and steeped in an old-world glamour that is incredibly aesthetically pleasing, a mixture of beauty and nostalgia that costume dramas like adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels satisfy. The sheer amount of furniture that is on the stage would ordinarily look cramped, but is arranged in such a way that - when Longhurt’s direction calls for it - makes the distance between the characters appears incredibly large, as if they were standingan empty stage.
The interactions between Mangan, Stirling, Carmichael and Yelda really bring forward the stark contrast between the various pairs, showing the slight differences in their similarities and vice versa. Even though Private Lives is a play with very little action, Mangan and Stirling’ dry wit and energy means that at no point do we feel like a moment is dragging, as the pair keep us on the edge of our seats with the unpredictability of their interactions. The characters’ tumultuous relationship onstage is interesting to track. Mangan and Stirling’s ability to convince and surprise us with the depths of the passion and violence that informs the relationship, from whispering sweet nothings to shattering glass in a heartbeat while making it look completely normal, is quite amazing.
Private Lives is a incredibly funny and generally entertaining show to watch, mostly due to the casts' masterful engagement with the material. There are genuine moments of humour against the rather bleak message within the piece. A veritable old world rom-com, it is perfectly clear why this show remains a classic to this day.