By Carole Di Tosti
The perfect satirical comedy of hijinks and intrigue is Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Set in the 1930s, Private Lives is a fresh and vibrant comedy of manners with dollops of romance that translate facilely to our time. In this superb revival with period costumes, hairstyles and sets, we are delighted to watch Toby Stephens as Elyot and Anna Chancellor as Amanda rant, love, despise, tease and torment each other, whirling in and out of their electric relationship and into a resumption of love after their divorce, remarried to others.
The production, which is currently on BroadwayHD, ran at the Chichester Festival Theatre with the same cast, including Anna-Louise Plowman (Sibyl) and Anthony Calf (Victor). Directed by Jonathan Kent the production was reprised with these actors at the Gielgud Theatre in London in 2013. And a performance was broadcast to participating cinemas in the UK (6 February 2014) and the US (11 December 2013) by CinemaLive and Digital Theatre in the West End Theatre Series. We are fortunate that the recordings offer the glorious opportunity to see the actors’ amazing performances as the production streams on BroadwayHD.
The cast does justice to Noel Coward’s banter and witticisms with beautifully paced brio shepherded by Kent. Elyot and Amanda who have divorced and married, Sibyl and Victor all end up unwittingly honeymooning at the same hotel in Deauville, France. The backstory and obsessive relationship with their former partners become evident when Sibyl probes Elyot about Amanda as they enjoy the view from their hotel balcony. When Elyot and Sibyl go inside and dress for dinner, Victor and Amanda emerge from their suite of rooms to relax on their balcony with drinks. As Sibyl has done, Victor questions Amanda about her relationship with Elyot and their divorce.
The parallels among the couples are dramatic and hysterical. The fantastic coincidence of the honeymooners’ balconies being adjacent slips by the audience because the concept is monstrous but deliciously funny. This is Coward at his playful best. From then on it is a matter of toppling dominoes that we eagerly watch as Amanda and Elyot discover the debacle of the haphazard balconies spatial togetherness and attempt to get their newly minted spouses to leave Deauville immediately. Can they avoid the inexorable inevitability of falling in love with each other all over again?
More’s the fun when Victor and Sibyl refuse to leave. Amanda is honest with Victor who is staid and placid in comparison to the madcap, wild Elyot. And Sibyl is a whiney, bratty youngster in comparison to the mysterious, edgy, flamboyant, cultured Amanda. Elyot and Amanda can’t help but note the mundanity of their current spouses. Thus, in seeing the promised land before them in their former love, they dump their duped marriage partners who initially suspect nothing.
Sadly, for Victor and Sibyl, and humorously for us, the cuckolds are forced to confront the obnoxious insult of this abandonment on their honeymoon. Have they so bored Amanda and Elyot forcing them to escape and run off together in a love reunion seeking a reaffirmation of profound amour? Or is the fatal attraction embedded in more than honied love?
The irony is delightful. Adultery is best served when it is dished up to one’s current spouse during a licentious adventure with one’s former spouse. What’s divorce got to do with loving your former partner again and again, especially when your current husband and wife witness the infamy? It’s such fun to indulge in an old-new romance and enjoy all the treachery that goes with it like aggression, unforgotten miseries and joys, regrets, war and the hateful pleasures of argument.
In the hands of a less-skilled playwright and with less exuberant, committed and talented actors, the play would be dated and unexciting with ho-hum quips and hackneyed plot structure. However, Coward has mastered the ironies of adultery with acute satire. He pushes it to the edges of situational comedy that is downright hysterical. We note that Kent and the actors appreciate this master and unleash their characters with earnest abandon.
All about this production is sensational and you will especially find its favor if you note Coward’s sage themes and indelible expose of human nature, love, the excitement of the forbidden and the rut of being unable to get to the end of oneself. The production is a joy and provides much-needed laughter from beginning to end. Kudos to all involved!
To see Private Lives (runtime 1 hr, 37 min.) and other wonderful shows streamed, go to BroadwayHD. Check out the Christmas shows as well. There are different memberships and a few with free trials to help you celebrate the season.