Private Lives by Noël Coward.Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Roger Hodgman at The Canberra Theatre Centre, March 19 – 22, 1997.
Hodgman and designer Shaun Gurton have turned this well-made play into a small gem - a comedy of upper class British manners of 1930 played with a 1990's sensibility. Coward's wit is amusing in its own right: this production adds visual style and comic timing par excellence.
As a critic I am placed by Coward in an invidious position - though nothing compared to some positions of characters in the play. Watch for Victor Prynne (Mark Pegler) on what I can only describe as an art nouveau couch a la exercise bike, opening Act III. And I am not surprised to learn, from Gertrude Lawrence in the excellent program, that the Lord Chamberlain's critical eye focussed severely on the sofa scene - until Noël charmed Lord Cromer with a personal reading and "not a word of Noël's script was censored."
My problem is that if I take the play seriously I shall appear to lack humour like Victor Prynne - a fault which even silly Sybil Chase (played by Rebekah Robertson) recognises. But if I laugh (as I did a lot on opening night) at a playwright which the director's notes refer to as "a thoroughly 'modern' writer" whose name was "synonymous with the sort of smart, witty, decadent and 'fast' image of twenties' youth, which indeed he helped create", then maybe I am undervaluing Noël Coward.
Elyot Chase (Philip Holder) and Amanda Prynne (Nicki Wendt), divorced for five years, use a sophisticated sense of the absurd to deal with accidentally meeting again on their second-time around honeymoons. Coward originally played Elyot, and leaves any critical tendentiousness with no role to play. Yet Amanda refers to her heart being "jagged with sophistication": seeing the funny side can only redeem the vicious ingredient in the chemistry of love for short periods. Though the structure of play has a neat ending, there is no resolution to the chaos of love.
I used to think of Coward as 'decadent', but these actors with this director in Gurton's subtly accurate set, have found a facet - reflecting over 65 years - which shows gem quality after all.© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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