Noel Coward wrote Private Lives in four days and it has endured for the best part of a century. A favourite with audiences around the world, it is a challenge for any theatre company to refresh the play for a twenty-first century audience.
Opting for upper-crust British accents and 1930s costumes, director Sam Strong has stuck faithfully to the original text. Where the production leaps into the present era is in the use of a revolving stage with multiple rooms including the hotel double balcony where the pairs of honeymooners play out the famous opening act. This revolving set, with its striped wallpapered rooms, adjoining doors and grand piano is not only lusciously elegant but lends itself to escapades and stolen kisses and narrow misses.
In this way the MTC’s Private Lives has a strong element of farce. The physical aspect of the comedy is brought to the fore. With no fear of a 1930s censor frowning on steamy love scenes, we see Amanda (Nadine Garner) and Elyot (Leon Ford) in the throes of passion, and watch their ardent quarrel extend into an all-out brawl. Another surprising novelty is the use of actor Julie Forsyth’s talents to flesh out the role of the maid Louise, who punctuates her French dialogue with hilarious slapstick comedy.
The softer side of the romantic comedy is less in evidence, although Strong uses Coward’s music to great advantage. There are more songs than in the original, not just the signature ‘One day I’ll find him’, but others, with piano accompaniment, sung beautifully by Garner and Lucy Durack (as Sibyl) and, with less ability but more humour, by Ford and John Leary (as Victor). But the tender moments are too few. The emotional subtext, and hence the impact of the story, is lacking.
The actors all portray their characters with conviction. Durack and Leary play their roles as the jilted honeymooners as stereotypes – she ditzy, he tedious – which is appropriate, as they are foils to the protagonists Amanda and Elyot. Garner plays up the unconventional side of Amanda with extravagant gestures. Ford reprises Coward’s debonair performance (Coward played Elyot in the original 1930 production), but ditches his buttoned-up demeanour in the second act with a little too much gay abandon. The switch in his character, even with the assistance of a few glasses of brandy, is too sudden to be credible.
Coward, like Oscar Wilde, is a master of dialogue. The character definition, the plot and the emotional tension are all there, in the script. No physical comedy can be allowed to override the dialogue, which may be heavy with sarcasm and affectation, but also reaches beneath the surface to deeper emotions. Every word counts. The British may talk faster than Australians, and radio versions of the play may use some rapid dialogue, but delivering Coward’s lines in a large theatre requires clear and defined diction, with tonal variety to articulate subtext and pauses for emotional impact. At times Ford and Garner rush their delivery and lose the opportunity to milk each phrase for its humour and its tragedy.
This MTC production is entertaining, proficient and boisterous. Perhaps Coward would have found it refreshing. But it does not quite do justice to his genius.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Noel Coward
Director Sam Strong
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 25 January – 8 March 2014
Times: Mon/Tues 6.30pm;Wed 1pm & 8pm;Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.
Duration: 2 hours, 20 mins
Tickets $30 – $119
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800