The circumstances of Noel Coward writing “Private Lives” are often dragged out of someone’s anecdotal storage area to terrify and intimidate aspiring writers. 4 days! They will tell you about this. He wrote this in 4 days! And yes, Noel Coward did write “Private Lives” in 4 days, but that doesn’t include the two weeks he spent recuperating from influenza in Shanghai where he, through a haze of painkillers and swift martinis, no doubt, dreamed up the initial characters and percolating the plot prior to actually starting writing.
Nevertheless, “Private Lives” remains a remarkable feat; a sobering lash of industrious creativity to those of us still living in the corners of fog-addled, lazy, Nescafe minds at half past one on a Tuesday off. We who have done nothing, we lazy dogs, are always reminded, painfully, of the Noel Coward 4-days-play-writing-a-thon, just to push the writerly self-hatred a little further into our bones. Of course, it has to be remembered that Noel Coward had nothing else to do. He had no other job than being Noel Coward (practically full time) and writing plays and letters, in order to ensure that he too would have a name that would become embalmed in the English language as an adjective (Cowardesque), one of the few writers to do so (Dickensian, Ortonesque, Rabelaisian, Byronic, Pinteresque, Shakespearean etc). But what a job to have. And how he did it.
I love “Private Lives”. I first read it when I was 14 and thought it instantly, fabulously, cruelly divine. It is cruel, in as much as two people get their marriages destroyed in a succinct 1 hour 55 minutes, but it is a beautifully funny piece of work. Coward’s world is a monied one – it seems almost as a second thought that Amanda suddenly remembers “I’ve got a flat in Paris!” almost as if she had forgotten she ever had one. Elyot, clearly another one with bottomless pockets, has just got back from going all around the world to recover from a broken heart, lashed to pieces by his former wife :
“I went around the world you know, after…”
“Yes, yes. I know. How was it?”
“Oh, highly enjoyable.”
This play is a lashing of cosmopolitan sophistication that, to audiences in 1930 must have been almost incomprehensibly glamourous. The sheer grandeur of divorce (then a rare, expensive habit of the super rich, like pure cocaine) was seductively exotic. Elyot and Amanda, previously existing in a sort of fuck or fight marriage, bump into each other in Deauville whilst on second honeymoons with other people. And really, that is sort of it. Only about two other things happen under the category PLOT in Mr Coward’s, delicately-papered dramatic notebook. Everything else is character, because of course the eternal theatrical algebra is well-shaped character + brilliant dialogue = plot. All that happens is the characters, and it happens beautifully.
This production has transferred in from the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, a strangely claustrophobic theatre in the round which I once worked in twelve years ago and which sits like a squat, ugly sister to the grander Chichester (pron. Chic-Hester) Festival Theatre next door. Coward’s play has a simple set, but only simple in that utterly elegant, consciously glorious Coward way. Like Howard’s Way, there are one or two boats, but they only appear in the middle distance over and above the audience’s heads. One yacht turns up, which is probably that, comments Elyot, of the Duke of Westminster because – well, it always is. This expresses the jaded ennui that permeates this play like vermouth cloudily falling into Smirnoff. This is a knowing play ; these characters know about casinos, travel, vintners, sexual relationships and how to address a French waiter. So essential is sex to this play that if the chemistry between Elyot and Amanda falls even an atom short, the play is dead.
Anna Chancellor brings a racehorse-like vivacity to the somewhat irrational, Amanda, who labels herself always ‘jagged with sophistication’. Chancellor recently said in an interview that she doesn’t consider herself a great actress, and that if the play is terrific then the actors will be too. Well, she has to start to consider herself a great actress and give herself a break, because she is stupendous as Amanda. She has that frightful combination of attraction curdling with fatal desire and – importantly – being an intelligent actress – she creates an intelligent Amanda who you can easily believe, would speak as Coward writes. Toby Stephens is an odd Elyot – its slightly troubling that he stands half a head shorter than both female characters (his first wife and his second) and although physically he doesn’t seem to quite fit the mark for how Elyot should appear, he has great comic flair and the audience laughed their loudest for him. Yet you never quite understand why Amanda is so utterly drawn to him, and you never quite find yourself able to imagine them having thrilling sex. There is something of the petulant schoolboy about him that suggests that Amanda would eat him for breakfast rather than repeatedly want to shag him in Parisian apartments. Nevertheless, their infamous second Act is carried off with rambunctious flair and a soupcon of the necessary emotional intensity and violence. This was the Act that the Lord Chancellor forced Coward to censor in various parts; not just because two pyjama-clad lunatics rolling post-coitally around a bachelorette pad was considered beyond the pale but rather because it showed two people, who were married to other people, kissing each other. The fact these two people had also been married to each other didn’t mean much to the Lord C. It was still censored. Oddly, the protestations of atheism didn’t bat an eyelid, nor Elyot’s wonderfully cheeky aside that he wishes for a moment that he was Catholic, if only because “it would be nice to think they’d back us up” in the face of their three day shag fest, as, not recognising divorce, only the Catholic Church would consider them still married.
The supporting roles are fleshed out a little more than normally, here. Sybil and Victor, so often relegated to the second rank characters in this play, are brilliant – Victor is particularly sympathetic in his dealing with the woeful, unconscionable Amanda. Sybil too, her of the famous “Don’t quibble, Sybil!” has pulled half the audience on to her side by halfway through the third Act. This third Act is beautifully staged, and where the relationship between Elyot and Amanda reaches a full romantic credibility.
It is unnecessary in a two hour play to have an interval at all. But here they do, and the production is weaker for it. The pace, so rapturously ranked up during the Second Act, takes an age to get itself going again, thanks to a forgetful comedy old French maid turn that the play could do without. When you also realise the second half of the play is only 25 minutes long you wonder why Jonathan Kent’s production bothered with an interval at all, but I presume theatres, West End or regional, depend heavily on III (Ice cream Interval Income) and the purchase of the illustrious souvenir programme by matinee matrons in Debenhams two pieces.
I hope I haven’t been too hard on this production here – reading back over this I wonder if I have. The truth is this a blindingly good use of two hours of your time. It’s a brilliant piece, well-paced, stylish and grittily sophisticated. It’s the kind of play that would bear up well to a second, third or even fourth viewing, and despite the Amandas and Elyots that have gone before, Stephens and Chancellor do fabulously well here.
Do return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we will see you on Thursday 1st August! Many thanks.