Noel Coward’s Private Lives is the kind of gossamer fluff that gets trotted out every so often in the major companies as a blatant grab for the wallets of the very old and the very bored. Not witty enough to remind us of Wilde or savage enough to remind us of Albee, it flutters inoffensively in the dead centre of the canon.
That said, a soufflé goes down easily but is notoriously hard to cook: a key ingredient half baked results in a very stodgy dessert. The new MTC production, directed by Sam Strong and starring Leon Ford as Elyot and Nadine Garner as Amanda, manages the task rather well and subsequently delivers a rather charming night in the theatre.
The plot is all contrivance, of course. Elyot Chase [Ford] is honeymooning with his new wife Sybil [Lucy Durack], after his recent divorce from Amanda [Garner]. Naturally, Amanda is honeymooning with her new husband Victor Prynne [John Leary] in the suite next door. Despite protestations to the contrary, Elyot and Amanda have unresolved feelings for each other, and it’s how they deal with these feelings, and the effect this has on their respective spouses, that takes up the two-hour traffic of the play.
Ford and Garner are quite wonderful as the central pair of bickering love birds. His dashing frame and hilariously expressive arched brow seem perfect for the caddish, casually brutal Elyot, and she is brilliant as the droopy, arm-flinging siren Amanda. They are two of our most underrated actors, and it’s a joy to see them so prominent on the major stage.
Durack and Leary are fine support as Sybil and Victor, both allowing the irritating aspects of their personalities to peek subtly through their otherwise sympathetic exteriors. Julie Forsyth is outstanding as the sardonic French maid Louise, milking the pratfalls for all they’re worth.
The set, although based on a design we may have seen once too often before at the MTC, is glorious. A glittering, labyrinthine jewel of a thing, it revolves and sparkles so effortlessly, it becomes a stylish art-deco character in itself. It also sets the mood of the play so consummately, I wanted to sit in the first five minutes for the next twenty.
Strong has brought a lovely elegiac quality to the first act, with some wistful notes so profound they border on the existential. It’s a pity this interpretation of the material isn’t carried further, well into the second act. As it is, the play sometimes bunny-hops from drawing-room comedy to bedroom farce, without the smooth gear changes that would have rendered this unobtrusive. I suspect this comes from the difficulty of marital violence that runs through Coward’s play.
Maybe it was funny that Elyot hits Amanda back in 1930, but unless you want the play to descend into a dirge on domestic violence – and surely only the most sadistic of directors would – you need to ramp up Amanda’s tendency to fight back. This results in a lot of slapstick worthy of Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle, but possibly ill-suited to Coward.
Ultimately it matters little if the thing is funny, and this production certainly is. The looks on the faces of Elyot and Amanda as their respective spouses hurl abuse at each other, proving Coward’s point that the most suitable couples are simultaneously the least, is priceless. It may not be a stretch for MTC audiences, but it is intermittently delightful and well worth seeing.
The Sumner – Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Boulevard, Southbank (Melbourne)
Performance: Thursday 30 January 2014
Season continues to 8 March 2014
Bookings: (03) 8688 0800 or online at: www.mtc.com.au
For more information, visit: www.mtc.com.au for details.
Image: by Jeff Busby
Review: Tim Byrne