Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Private Lives by Noël Coward

Zahra Newman (Amanda)  Toby Schmitz (Elyot)

Love or ...

Toby Truslove (Victor)  Eloise Mignon (Sibyl)
                  Mish Grigor (the maid Louise) not pictured                                                                                                           Mayhem!

Rehearsal photos by Brett Boardman

 Private Lives by Noël Coward.  Belvoir Upstairs directed and designed by Ralph Myers at Belvoir Street, Sydney, September 22 – November 11, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 2

Because I had time on my hands and no smoking in my eyes, I wrote a small poem as a mental preparation for reviewing Private Lives:

    At the Central end of Sydney city,
    Down at heel among the feet in
    High heeled glass slipper towers, is this
    Sophistication when viewed
    From my suburban bungalow
    On the outer edge
    Of the Bush Capital?

    Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

    But here’s the Belvoir B
    Company of players bravely
    Or Cowardly playing Noël.

    Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

    We shall see.  Are they still
    On the edge?  Like me?


As you can see, I had my doubts – about whether Noël Coward was the right sort of playwright for Belvoir, whether the play would be a piece of museum theatre (which I couldn’t imagine), or whether it could be “modernised” and whether it should be if it could.

Still with time to have coffee and cake before going in, I broke my usual rule and read the director’s notes before seeing his work.  It’s always better to judge first and then see what the director intended.  So I thought.

The stage was empty.  The set was a white wall with two white doors and a white double door between that might be a lift entry.

Aha! I thought.  Modern Minimalism – no Noël Coward high fashion here.

Oho! I remembered.  The last play I saw with a set like this was a blood-and-gore Greek Tragedy at the Wharf – was it The Trojan Women?

This was looking serious.

The trouble was that I had never thought of Coward as a serious contender in his era compared with, say, Eugene O’Neill or George Bernard Shaw.

Well, I needn’t have worried.  This Private Lives is not the slightest bit serious – just bloody (to quote Shaw) funny.

Instead of the false glamour of the 1930’s rich and famous, and the exposé of their superficiality – the interpretation you could look for in Coward’s day – this stripped down study of the destructive nature of love has taken us out of the conventional social criticism mode into the universal.  Just as the director promised in his notes.

Love conquers all because it has to – there is so much that needs to be conquered.  Like demeaning comments or jokes at other people’s expense.  Like Alan Jones, say.

Alan Jones, of course, is not funny – even when he tries to apologise, and then blames others for vilifying him – because he is real.

Coward’s characters become more and more funny, struggling against their own worst natures, until the play reaches a crescendo of laughing, clapping and cheering (on our part, not theirs) as the lights dim on the mayhem of a stage now totally full of clutter, physical and emotional – because we are safe in our seats watching what we know to be fiction.

Yet we also know even while we laugh that “tearing each other apart”, as Myers’ notes describe it, is real enough.

Maybe Alan Jones will understand this one day.

Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

So, yes, using a clearly defined modern acting style, in modern costumes, with modern accents in a modern set gives Coward a new edge.  There is a level of sophistication here which is central to Sydney, in the great tradition of Belvoir Street.  I saw it clearly from the Bush Capital, and it made the 300 km trip well worthwhile.

Or if that is a trip too far, you can wait for the Canberra Theatre season November 21-24.

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