If you were to ask the public what their response would be to scenes of a physically violent relationship, most people would say horror or shock or discomfort. Most people wouldn’t laugh. Well, most people have not been part of the audience of Private Lives. Noel Coward’s play is a twisted romantic comedy in three acts, following the story of a divorced couple on their honeymoon with their new partners, who find themselves in adjoining rooms. Elyot and Amanda, unable to resist the dangerous pull of their old love, find themselves back in the same stormy relationship they left behind and leave their spouses, Cybil and Victor, to run away together to Paris. Despite themes of adultery, violence and sex, Private Lives is first and foremost a comedy. It’s funny moments were made all the more compelling by the decidedly sinister undertones of the play. Although it was written in 1929, the material feels fresh and laughs are easy to come by — which was just as much a result of the acerbic one-liners built in with perfect delivery, as the scenes that are both at once ridiculous and brilliant.
The atmosphere is made all the more real by the small details. The set was beautiful; Giles Croft, the director, avoided letting the design stray into art deco cliché by keeping the stage open, uncluttered and simple. But by no means was it sparse. From the huge bay windows with gauzy curtains in the hotel, to the wrought iron balcony overlooking the ‘sea’, letting the actors lean out into the audience, the scenery felt authentically French Riviera, evoking a decadent, luxurious feeling of a time long past.
This was reflected in the lighting, which was as elegant as the set design. The soft light behind the curtains in Amanda’s Parisian apartment changed to indicate moonlight or sunrise, whilst the spotlights at the honeymoon hotel gave the actors the golden glow of holiday sunshine. It was easy to be swept away when the world they had created, looked and felt so real.
This same attention to detail could be seen in the costumes, from the silky bias cut dresses Amanda wears to the victory rolls in Cybil’s hair, the women oozed glamour whilst the men looked dapper in tailored suits and brogues. Visually, the play was stunning and utterly convincing.
Almost every scene was accompanied by the quiet strains of orchestral music, reflecting the decadent feel of the set and lighting. The score was dreamy; in moments, the soft classical swell was as integral to the play with its various musical and singing parts, as it was beautiful background noise.
Most importantly though, the acting was superb. With only five characters and two set changes, the play hinges on the ability of its actors to entertain and engross the audience in this unconventional romance of sorts. All the characters were refreshingly three-dimensional, vivid portrayals of lovers spurned and lovers gained. Janie Dee was perfectly cast as the melodramatic, witty Amanda and Rupert Wickham made Elyot, though a violent misogynist, undeniably charismatic. Together the two were charming, exploring the darker side of love whilst never failing to keep their performances light. Cybil and Victor were a wonderful foil to the intensity of the other two, providing a humorous symmetry to the other pair’s relationship and giving the play its deliciously entertaining ending.
Private Lives is as much a play about dysfunction as it is about love. Countering darkness with humour to create characters that are both loveable and flawed, it amounts to a glorious story that should not be missed.
(Private lives is on at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 22nd of October)