Private Lives ran at Belvoir St from 22 September-11 November and is now on tour. In Wollongong 14-17 November and Canberra 21-24 November. By Noel Coward, directed by Ralph Myers.
Private Lives is a champagne comedy. Let’s be real. It’s light and frothy and screamingly funny. It’s full of Cowardian bon mots and one-liners that are agonisingly hilarious. Belvoir’s production of it (which I saw twice, once at Belvoir, once at Merrigong) is definitely full of fizz. It’s sharp and snappy and perfectly cast – I mean, Toby Schmitz as Elyot Chase? how was that not going to work? But what I find interesting – and something which I think the Belvoir production highlights – is the darkness percolating below the surface. Beneath the banter of Elyot and Amanda (and, eventually, Victor and Sibyl) is something dangerous, devastating, and deadly serious. Underneath the fun, there’s destruction.
In her 2009 book A Vindication of Love, Cristina Nehring writes:
“I bear the bodily scars of a loss or two in love. I have been derailed by love, hospitalised by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled in love. But... I feel new. Ready for the next round.” (p.275)
There are some serious flaws with Nehring’s book which I won’t get into here, but watching Private Lives, I could not help but think of this quote. Nehring subscribes to the view of love articulated by Denis de Rougemont, love as the sublimated desire for death (something I write about a lot in my academic life which I’ve managed to shoehorn into my theatre reviews before – see here). For love – or, more correctly, passion – to flourish, there must be an undercurrent of destruction. Love is not really adoration or veneration. In Private Lives, Sibyl and Victor adore Elyot and Amanda respectively, and that love is nowhere near enough: it is pale, insipid, fruitless. Love is tied to the desire to possess: to want someone so desperately you want to climb inside their skin (which happens almost literally in Private Lives). Elyot and Amanda cannot live with each other and cannot live without each other because they each want to control the other, to dominate, to lead, to possess. Nehring writes that, “theatrics are at the very heart of romance” (p.65), and between these two, there are theatrics aplenty. The entire play is based on the explosive theatricality of their relationship. They love and desire each other so much that they cannot help but want to destroy each other: Elyot’s cut lip and Amanda’s black eye in the third act are potent physical reminders of this.
It was a brave decision by Ralph Myers to leave the domestic violence of Private Lives in the script. (I went along to Belvoir’s Sunday Forum, where he said that when he was preparing to direct the play, a lot of people he talked to advised him that it had to be cut.) Does it pay off or not? I’m not sure. Looking at the play purely as a champagne comedy? Probably not. Both times I saw it, the room went silent when Elyot and Amanda discuss the first time he hit her – not just I’m-not-laughing-at-this-present-moment silent, but oh-holy-shit silent. People going along looking purely for just light fizzy fun will probably find it offputting. I guess whether it works or not depends on how much darkness you want to find in the show. Private Lives certainly doesn’t function as an endorsement of this kiss-with-a-fist style relationship. Elyot and Amanda’s love is consuming, but it isn’t idealised (this is, as it happens, where I think Nehring’s book on love falls down: her overt fetishisation of destruction and inequality). Intellectually, I found it quite interesting. In literary terms, the relationship of Elyot and Amanda is a throwback to love in medieval romance, before the marriage plot in the novel. Their love isn’t domesticated – when they tried to domesticate it, it failed spectacularly. Love is innately individual for them and will not be bound within a social institution. This harks back to Nehring again, who writes that, “Love is always against something as ardently as it is for somebody” (p.103). This kind of thing is the stuff I can – and do – nerdle about all day long. But on a purely visceral level? God, watching two people beat each other up is deeply uncomfortable.
The actual reason I saw this play twice was a) I liked it, but mostly b) I’m really interested in how stuff translates from big city mainstage to different stages on tour. This is something I thought I’d have a lot more to say about than I actually do. The Upstairs theatre at Belvoir and the IMB theatre at IPAC are fundamentally very different spaces – if nothing else, they’re totally different shapes – but this play translated beautifully. I think the cast did take a little while to adjust to the massive IMB theatre: it’s so big that the jokes seem to take more time to reach the back, and the timing at the beginning in the Wollongong performance was a little uneasy compared to when I saw it in Sydney. Their adjustment was swift, however, and the third act was sidesplittingly hilarious, even the second time round. Both Tobies, Schmitz and Truslove, are real standouts. Schmitz’s dry, sardonic delivery is perfect for Elyot’s witticisms; and Truslove is a total comic natural.
This has all been a very long-winded and nerdy way of saying that I really like this play. It made me think a lot more than I was expecting it to – it’s not often I come out of a comedy and smash out 500 words on the Theory of Love™. I definitely think it could make some people very uncomfortable and should maybe come with a trigger warning, but it really is wonderfully performed and absolutely desperately funny. I’m not entirely sure why everyone was spending so much time hanging out in what appeared to be the hotel corridor, but you should go along and see it and work it out for yourself. If nothing else, it totally wins the award for Best Use Of Phil Collins On The Stage Ever!