Stage Door Review

Private Lives

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

✭✭✩✩

by Noël Coward, directed by Carey Perloff

Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford

May 30-October 26, 2019

Elyot: “Let’s be superficial”

The Stratford Festival’s most recent production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives (1930) is a humdrum affair which is exactly what a show known for its dazzling wit should not be. The play is very like a verbal farce except that instead of involving us in the artifice of physical action it involves us in the artifice of witty banter. As with farce the director and actors have to have just the right touch to make the play come off as an airy soufflé rather than an eggy pancake. Yet, in this production, because of peculiar directorial, design and acting choices, a flat pancake is what we get. 

The plot is based on a premise so dependant on coincidence and carried out with such an emphasis on symmetry that it almost takes pride in its self-conscious artificiality. Elyot Chase (Geraint Wyn Davies) and Amanda Prynne (Lucy Peacock), now divorced from each other for five years, have each remarried and independently have decided to spend their honeymoons at the same hotel on the French Riviera. Not only that, but they have been given adjacent rooms with adjacent balconies where the action of Act 1 takes place.

It so happens that Elyot has married  Sibyl (Sophia Walker), a younger more conventionally feminine woman, while Amanda and married Victor (Mike Shara), an younger more conventionally masculine man (an older man in the original). Discovering themselves side-by-side again, they rekindle their love and decide to abandon their spouses for a shameless new life together in Paris. 

As with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), another play built on conscious artifice, the play to work properly requires acting that makes the witticisms of the dialogue sound as spontaneous as possible. Director Carey Perloff, however, has encouraged natural delivery only from Lucy Peacock and Geraint Wyn Davies. For unknown reasons, she has decided to add to the dullness of Amanda and Elyot’s spouses by having the otherwise capable Mike Shara and Sophia Walker speak and act in an exaggerated, over-emphatic manner. 

A difference in acting styles is a flaw in any play, but here it makes it impossible to believe that Elyot and Amanda could have ever imagined they were in love with two people who are so unlike them. If we don’t really believe that Elyot and Amanda believe they are in love with Sibyl and Victor then the rekindling of their old romance does not have the transgressive power it should, and our vicarious revelling their transgression is really the whole point of the play.

Peacock plays Amanda in a suitably self-dramatizing way in the mode of Judith Bliss in Coward’s Hay Fever (1925), which Peacock played at Stratford in 2014, although Perloff allows her a fit of mugging when Amanda first notices Elyot next door. Wyn Davies, in contrast, plays Elyot in a manner unlike any I’ve seen before. Rather than the intended suave, urbane Elyot as Brian Bedford played him at Stratford in 2001 and 1978, Wyn Davies plays him as a rather spoiled, overgrown child. In Act 2, we discover that what ties Elyot and Amanda together and what leads to their frequent quarrels is that the two really are spoiled, overgrown children, or at least people who are useless at handling the duties and responsibilities of the outside world. The humour should be the contrast between the elegant Elyot of Act 1 and the infantile Eltot of Act 2, but Wyn Davies doesn’t provide this. 

Amanda says in Act 1 in the only reference to the play’s title, “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives”. For this revelation of their personalities “deep down” to be effective or humorous in Act 2, we can’t have a clear glimpse of what their “private lives” are like in Act 1.

For a director Act 2 is the most difficult part of the play but it is also the meatiest. As in Wilde’s Earnest and in other plays by Coward, a studied appearance of superficiality is used to disguise a profound critique of conventional morality. In their actions Elyot and Amanda have already flouted norms of marriage and fidelity. In their discussions they throw over religion and any institutions or persons who purport to dispense moral guidance. 

Elyot gives a defence of flippancy just as Wilde might of triviality: “All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light”. Even death does not escape their mockery: “Death's very laughable, such a cunning little mystery. All done with mirrors”. Elyot even states his philosophy outright: “Let's be superficial and pity the poor philosophers. Let's blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party as much as we can, like very small, quite idiotic school children”. 

This act and the play as a whole can be quite wonderful as evidenced by Robin Phillips' production for Stratford in 1978 starring Brian Bedford and Maggie Smith or Denise Coffey's production for the Shaw Festival in 1983 starring Christopher Newton and Fiona Reid. Here Perloff simply does not shape the action well in terms of pacing or changes of tone. Amanda and Elyot are sweet to each other, then fight, make up again, fight again and so on. This vacillation is supposed to be humorous because even though the two would like their love to be free of strife, they both know the paradox of their natures is that they quarrel because they love each other. This is an insight Beatrice and Benedick need others to point out to them in Much Ado about Nothing, but here Elyot and Amanda have learn this lesson themselves. 

Unfortunately, the way Perloff has managed it, the to-and-fro between the two is not so much comic as tedious. Coward gradually builds up their conflicts so they become ever more intense. Here Perloff lets their conflicts stay on the same level of intensity until the final over-the-top blow-up at the end of the act.

Act 3 fares best in the production especially with the addition of Sarah Dodd, who played Sibyl here in 2001, as the disapproving French maid, Louise. Fans of Coward will feel when Louise arrives that finally the play has found is bearings. When Victor and Sibyl begin quarrelling in front of their gleeful spouses, Perloff lets Walker and Shara cast off their artificial delivery and act normally as they should have from the start. The effect, even if rather too late in the day, is quite funny. Given the unconventional logic that pervades the play, Elyot and Amanda look on so pleased with their own sparring spouses because they know that it is a sign of love.

Yet, even in Act 3, Perloff does not leave well enough alone. She has Elyot eat marmalade directly out of the jar with a jam spoon and grimace and later put on Louise’s hat and carry her purse simply to get a laugh. Such actions show Perloff thinks she can make Coward funnier, whereas it only shows she does not recognize where the real humour lies.

A major peculiarity of the new production is the sets by Ken MacDonald. The sets for the play are composed of separate tightly curved walls with floral cut-outs at the top. In Act 1, the cut-outs and wavy walls recall the sea and palms of the Riviera, but do not look like any Art Deco buildings constructed up to that time. Florin Court in London is about a curvy as any European building got. When the walls are turned about to make the set for Acts 2 and 3 the curves are equally far too extreme for any Art Deco interior of the time. Emphasizing the oddness of the sets is that the furniture in them does not suit them, all of it looking far too conventional for such futuristic rooms. 

Rather than helping to make the artificiality of the play seem natural, MacDonald’s sets reinforce the play’s artificiality and call attention to themselves. It’s hard to make Amanda and Elyot look unconventional in Acts 2 and 3, when the rooms they live in are already so stylistically unconventional. 

The use of such sets simply shows that Perloff has little insight into the play and how it works. While it is fun to hear the play’s parade of witty exchanges, Elyot’s frequent remarks recommending violence against women have lost what little perverted humour they may have had. Just as much such fun could be had in reading the play as in seeing it in such a plodding production. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Geraint Wyn Davies as Elyot, Mike Shara as Victor, Sophia Walker as Sibyl and Lucy Peacock as Amanda; Geraint Wyn Davies as Elyot and Sophia Walker as Sibyl; Geraint Wyn Davies as Elyot and Lucy Peacock as Amanda. © 2019 David Hou.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca