December 03, 2006

Lost for Words

Private Lives
By Noel Coward

State Theatre Company of South Australia
and Queensland Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse
Until December 13, 2006.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Of Private Lives, a play he wrote in four days in 1929 while staying at the Cathay Hotel in Shanghai, Noel Coward remarked it “was well-constructed on the whole, but psychologically unstable.” He describes writing it propped up in bed with a writing block and an Eversharp pencil – and it is certainly an eversharp view of the fickleness of love.

Not since Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has a play so masqueraded as lightweight comedy while forensically examining the hypocrisies and anxieties of its audience. Perhaps the main source of that psychological instability in Private Lives is the melancholy proposition that, unlike the horse and carriage, love and marriage rarely go together at all.

This is especially true for Coward’s characters, Elyot and Amanda, whose marriage quickly marked the end of romance. Act One of Private Lives opens with each re-married and honeymooning in Capri, only to discover- in Coward’s suave use of preposterous coincidence – that they have rented adjoining villas. To the chagrin of their new, duller and more compliant spouses, Elyot and Amanda begin their peekaboo relationship all over again.

In this strangely charmless production from the Queensland Theatre Company, director Michael Gow has found little of the wit in the play and none of its currency. Designer Robert Kemp has resisted the usual art deco options and gone for Raoul Dufy instead. With highly painterly flats buzzing with marine detail the French Riviera is invoked in Act One and a rich red odalisque Parisian apartment for Acts Two and Three. The costumes are true to period, and we are reminded of the potency of cheap music with meaningful repetitions of such tunes as It Had to Be You. But there is no immediacy to the satire and little of the play’s sense of worldly disdain and disappointment. Instead of Coward, Gow gives us P.G. Wodehouse, a Wooster world of crimped hair, crimped ideas, vacuous and without purpose.

Looking in the program at the lively rehearsal stills of the actors in casual attire, it seems none of their verve has translated to the production itself. Perhaps if more of themselves and some of this century were invested, the performances could lift above stagy English caricature. Jean Marc-Russ has sardonic moments as Elyot, but the “chemical what d’you call ‘ems” with Helen Christinson’s lacklustre Amanda fail to spark. As for the supports, Sybil and Victor, Annie Maynard and James Evans are shrill and wooden as Act Three grinds to its chaotic conclusion.

Those who remember the State Theatre production with Hugo Weaving and Heather Mitchell will know that Private Lives can be successfully played with a lightly English-ed Australian vernacular. It is a play that still has plenty to say, especially when young marriage is so much in vogue. But in this production, hobbled by stale theatrics and insufferably mannered diction, Coward’s pungent dialogue has no way of finding the contemporary voice it deserves.

“Hobbled by stale theatrics” The Adelaide Review, No.306, December 3, 2006, p.15

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