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Private Lives, Donmar Warehouse review - Coward revival cuts to the quick | reviews, news & interviews

Private Lives, Donmar Warehouse review - Coward revival cuts to the quick

Private Lives, Donmar Warehouse review - Coward revival cuts to the quick

Comedy classic plays up the pain that comes with pleasure

Love's lacerations: Rachael Stirling and Stephen Mangan as Amanda and Elyot

It's not often with Private Lives that you feel Amanda and Elyot are one step away from a visit to A&E. But such is the startling force of Michael Longhurst's Donmar Warehouse revival of arguably Noël Coward's most durable play that you are aware throughout of violence and pain as the flipside of passion at its most intense.

Some will complain (and have) that the result negates the comedy coursing through this time-honored text; I would argue that the laughs are still there, tempered in this instance by an awareness of the lacerations oftentimes inflicted by love. 

After all, not for nothing is this play remembered in some quarters for Elyot's casual remark that "certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs" - an eye-opening assertion whether now or in 1930, when Coward's three-act, four-character play premiered. Small wonder that we hear Elyot (Stephen Mangan) railing against his ex-wife Amanda (Rachael Stirling) as "a spiteful little beast" whom she divorced "for cruelty", as Elyot explains early on to Sibyl (a dismayed Laura Carmichael, pictured below), his younger second wife.

It's hardly surprising elsewhere to see Elyot stroking Amanda's throat in an apparent caress that could well morph into a choke. And when Amanda announces that she's "marked for tragedy", the comment in this context sounds far less flagrantly self-dramatising than usual: maybe she really is, and Elyot, too.

Laura Carmichael in 'Private Lives' I admit to some apprehension when I first saw Hildegard Bechtler's funereal-seeming set, which shrouds the Gallic setting in darkness at odds with the airiness of the opening balcony scene. That of course is the great coincidence that finds the one-time couple occupying adjoining suites on the French Riviera whilst on their second honeymoons. A throaty Stirling, in a career-best performance, gives Amanda a strangulated quality of surprise as befits someone experiencing a kind of PTSD, and Mangan invests Elyot with a corresponding growl to suggest a possible beast in the sheets - and possibly in life, as well.

Those wanting a more epicene take on this play may wonder at the sheer physicality of a staging in which the fights properly register: Kate Waters, no stranger to making theatrical agons matter, is the expert fight director here. But it's equally possible to view the production as a darker version of the defining West End and Broadway one from 20 years ago with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, in which this comedy of manners communicated an erotic ache that, in Longhurst's approach, tilts towards asphyxiation. Why do these lovebirds submit to one another again? Because some attractions defy analysis and, in any case, each is a lot wittier and more wild than the comparative dullards for whom they have none-too-happily settled second time round. Adventure, whatever the course, is preferable to domestic boredom. 

It helps, too, to have two leads who understand the requisite style which a lot of younger performers these days play-act in an attempt to achieve but not here. Stirling looks terrific, hair styled with the same casual elegance with which she wears the period-perfect clothes. You sense Amanda's insecurity at "crumbling away unwanted", and when she quotes Saint Joan ("how long, O Lord, how long"), you feel anew the depth to a character far too essentially devoted to flippancy to succumb for good to the Shavian-Strindbergian abyss teased out by Coward. (In fact, I've often thought this play could be neatly done in repertory with Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a later theatrical quartet whose film leads, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, led a Broadway revival of Private Lives back in the day.)  

Mangan is more physically robust than most Elyots in my experience, and you understand why Amanda would return to him in an instant, not least after that comparative wimp, Victor (Sargon Yelda), who seems here to have been cast for his physical slightness: Amanda looks as if she could eat this second husband for lunch whereas Elyot is another matter altogether. In roaring form, Mangan is very funny imitating the "plop plop"s of the fountain by the Plaza Athénée, and has a field day with an extended scene in which he devours a brioche with butter and jam: the man has a voracious appetite, which can be both an asset in life - and also not.

The supporting characters seem more strait-laced than usual (no Sibyl will ever rival Sara Crowe's scene-stealing turn in that part opposite Joan Collins), and when they turn on one another in the final scene, you share Amanda and Elyot's bemusement at their second partners' sheer ordinariness: if you're going to cut to the quick, at least do it with cunning. Will Amanda and Elyot find a new way forward that their temperaments disallowed first time round?  Coward leaves that question to linger open-ended, but even if the duo do go down fighting, they will have done so as a couple: the togetherness is all.

Rachael Stirling, in a career-best performance, gives Amanda a strangulated quality of surprise as befits someone experiencing a kind of PTSD


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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