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Private Lives by Noël Coward at Donmar Warehouse

If there is one characteristic that permeates all of Noel Coward’s plays, it is that he creates cardboard characters with lack of depth and vacant chest cavity, where once did lie a beating heart.

It is a leap of faith for any group of creatives to tackle Coward’s relentless mockery of human subjectivity and to find complexity in the characters he creates but, in spite of the author’s disdain for humanity, and perhaps disdain for the audience itself, theatre creatives persevere.

Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling in PRIVATE LIVES - Donmar Warehouse - photo by Marc Brenner
Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling in PRIVATE LIVES – Donmar Warehouse – photo by Marc Brenner.

And in this arduous search, a truth emerges in the current production of Private Lives, directed by Michael Longhurst, who claws through the script, lets the domestic violence explode, and damn to hell any critic who finds it exploitative.

The initial event that kicks off this ludicrous tragicomedy is a chance meeting between Elyot Chase (Stephen Mangan) and Amanda Prynne (Rachael Stirling).

Elyot and Amanda haven’t seen each other since their divorce five years ago, a marital union dissolved amid accusations of adultery, heapings of jealousy and occasional rounds of fisticuffs where each knocked the other about. That was oh so long ago and now both are freshly remarried and, unknowingly, honeymooning at the same hotel outside of Paris.

What are the chances they’re also sharing a joint balcony with a seafront view of Deauville? A contrived plot point, I’d say, as is most of the action that permeates the rest of the play.

Elyot, and his 23-year-old bride, Sybil (Laura Carmichael) are the first pair of newlyweds who appear on the balcony, professing their love for each other ad nauseum – a replica of every comedic take you’ve ever seen about ‘just marrieds’. That is until Sybil begins to harp on Elyot’s previous marriage to Amanda, ‘who’s prettier?’, ‘who do you love more?’, the usual claptrap.

Elyot becomes increasingly irritated with her and it is in these moments that Mangan breathes the first layer of complexity into his character, breaking free from Coward’s idea of Elyot, who appears to be Coward’s alter-ego and filled with the author’s venom for women, if not the entire human race.

‘If there’s one thing in the world that infuriates me,’ Elyot says to Sybil, ‘it’s sheer wanton stubbornness. I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe.’ I didn’t believe Elyot. I just heard Noel Coward’s voice.

Mangan’s interpretation of Elyot defies the author and the tiring aspects of the plot; he’s much more interesting than his outbursts, and can journey alone with neither Sybil nor Amanda as a prop.

The same is true of Rachael Stirling’s interpretation of Amanda. She’s also a flesh and blood woman, who yearns to tell us something more about her character. This comes through, even though Coward holds her gender in rigid restraints.

Private Lives, as written, is extremely formulaic. The hotel balcony is a space that lays down the dissatisfaction Elyot and Amanda feel towards their new spouses. Amanda’s tepid husband, Victor (Sargon Yelda), expresses the same concerns about Amanda’s first marriage – wondering if she’s still in love with Elyot – as Sybil voiced to Elyot in wondering if he’s still smitten with Amanda.

Amanda becomes irritated with Victor and we sense their marriage is doomed. We await the moment when Elyot and Amanda both pop onto the balcony alone and discover they’re still wildly, ferociously, insanely in love with each other and run off together, leaving their lacklustre spouses behind. And, of course, this moment does come.

When Elyot and Amanda hole up in Amanda’s Paris flat, a post-modern art-deco set design is revealed (Hildegard Bechtler). Ingeniously, it’s been hidden under a sea of silky cloth throughout the entire first act. Like a vortex, it sucks us into the 1930s and we revel in this unexpected change. It’s the piece we didn’t anticipate, unlike the rest of the script.

Likewise, Mangan’s turn at the piano and what a melancholy, pensive moment it is, watching him hit the keys with Thirties love songs, and also the gaiety of Amanda and Elyot, switching on a Victrola and doing kick-high versions of Charleston and Varsity Drag. Every ounce of their energy is poured into the play.

Finally, there is much written about scenes of domestic abuse between these two violently in love characters, both verbal and physical with slaps and shoves and bottles thrown and smashed.

These scenes are disturbing to watch but the problem is that Director Longhurst, and Mangan and Stirling, have to juggle this with what is supposed to be wildly hilarious flippant repartee. And this is where the actors earn their stripes, elevate both character and content and persevere.

Stirling and Mangan are astounding and make Private Lives a play worth seeing, but I imagined them joining hands and leaping into another play to find out who Elyot and Amanda really are.

4 stars

Review by Loretta Monaco

Elyot and Amanda; glamorous, rich, reckless… and divorced.

We were so ridiculously over in love.
Funny wasn’t it?
Horribly funny.

Elyot and Amanda; glamorous, rich, reckless… and divorced.

A surprise encounter on adjoining hotel balconies rekindles their passion and they fling themselves violently into love once more, and their newly married lives into chaos.

Starring Stephen Mangan, Rachael Stirling, Laura Carmichael and Sargon Yelda this fiercely intimate revival of Noël Coward’s dark comedy directed by Donmar Artistic Director Michael Longhurst, asks can you love someone too much, or too many times?

7 April 2023 – 27 May 2023

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