The Streaming Experience: West End’s Private Lives
After having the good fortune of watching The Old Vic production of Endgame the other night, I wandered around digitaltheatre.com and excitedly saw several shows that I just had to find the time to watch (it’s getting harder and harder to find the time for all the streaming theatre out there). My buddy and I had tickets to see Endgame in person last month, and when the whole trip to London was canceled, we donated one of the Endgame tickets to The Old Vic rather than getting a credit voucher for the both of them. With that donation, I soon discovered that not only did I get the chance to watch Beckett’s Endgame, but I was also was granted permission to many other productions available on digitaltheatre.com, including the wonderfully fun West End revival of Funny Girl starring Sheridan Smith (tonight’s viewing), Regent’s Park’s production of Into the Woods (maybe on the weekend?), and the West End revival of Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre, a play that I have some fun design history with.
Back in the day, when I was a theatre set design major at York University, Toronto, my final project for design class was Noël Coward’s Private Lives. I was able to pick from a variety of theatre spaces to stage my design for, and against the recommendations of my wonderful professor, I went with a more open-spaced theatre, rather than the standard proscenium. Traditionally, the play is structured to be laid out much like it was done at the Gielgud. A backdrop of french doors behind the railings at the edge for Act One set the scene of two adjoining balconies at a luxury hotel in France. For the rest of the play, those design pieces disappear to reveal a spacious Art Deco Parisian flat rotating into view for the remaining battleground needed for Act Two and Three. I had decided to try something else, utilizing the same acting space for all three with rotating walls and windows to change the exterior into an interior, enhanced with bold art deco flower prints. My professor, who I adored, never was able to see past my flaunting of tradition, but I persevered. I loved my design, but she just ‘liked’ it. You can’t win every battle, I learned, so I was looking forward to watching this production to take in what they did with the set, and see if they flaunted tradition as I had once done so many years prior.
Probably wisely, they did not follow my revolution, staying true to tradition, and gifting us with a gloriously produced production. Playing first at the Chichester Festival Theatre before flying into the West End, Anthony Ward’s deliciously decadent art deco design is both handsome and elegant, billowing in the ocean’s air with effortless charm. Private Lives is exactly that kind of play; breezy and delightful sharp. It’s clear that Noël Coward loaded up a lopsided battle between fiery destructive passion and silly and boring strait-laced propriety. Naturally, in true Coward form, passion is the rightful winner, but we also know that from the start. It’s a perfect set-up he creates to examine this romantic conflict. On a beautiful summer’s night, a divorced couple forcefully collides with one another while on honeymoon with their new unknowing partners. At first, horrified to see the other and desperate to escape, the two, Amanda and her ex-husband, Elyot, find they can’t ignore the music below and that fire inside that draws them together. They must embrace it and run with it to the bitter end.
They also can’t deny the fact that they have both married for possibly the wrong ‘right reasons’, such as security and stability, two things Coward obviously can’t bear. The pretty but insipid Sibyl, Elyot’s new wife, and Amanda’s new husband, the decent but dull Victor don’t stand a chance in this relentlessly jagged but sophisticated world of wit and charm. Nervous but enlivened and every so British, the two exes fly into each other’s arms as quickly as fine cocktails downed when fueled by moonlight and ocean air. Deep down in their Private Lives, their passion for one another is as impossible to ignore as their tendency to bicker, an obvious stance where the playwright’s sympathies lie. “It’s strange how potent cheap music” can be, they observe, as they throw themselves madly together on those impeccable adjoining balconies, discarding rational thought for explosive desire.
Toby Stephens (National/West End’s Oslo) as Elyot, stands strong and handsome on the balcony looking out at the yachts in the harbor, irresistibly charming in his perfectly tailored tux, courtesy of designer Ward. He manages to exude impeccable sophistication while also displaying subtly the wounds in Elyot’s obvious facade. We are drawn to him, but aware that there is danger in attachment with this type of man. And we wonder if it is worth the risk. As Amanda, Anna Chancellor (National’s The Seagull, “Downton Abbey“) shines smart and bright, giving us a droll wise thoroughbred of a woman just anxiously waiting in the stalls to be ridden thrillingly and dangerously through the elegant countryside. She’s a needy fireball, saddled with a spikey restlessness in regards to polite convention. It borders on testy but never steps over into that territory, wisely keeping us on her side while also seeing the trouble ahead. She’s excitingly good at her quick sly remarks, even when the jabs are somewhat mean, but it’s clear from the beginning that she will have little patience for her new husband’s dull upright kindness. It’s a wonder the needy newlywed Sibyl, somewhat flittingly played by the lovely Anna-Louise Plowman (real-life wife of Toby Stephens; Oxford Playhouse’s Three Tall Women), and the blustering proud Victor, strongly portrayed by Anthony Calf (Broadway’s King Charles III), don’t catch on more quickly to their distant coolness. Mischief seems to hang in Amanda and Elyot’s sighs as they both look out over the ocean dreamingly, and it’s clear that these two “violent assets” will undoubtedly come crashing together with an unbridled force, regardless of the pretty pass it will all come to.
Kent’s production was a clear favorite at the Chichester Festival Theatre in the fall of 2012, transferring lock, stock, and barrel to London’s West End. The chemistry between Chancellor and Stephens is somewhat elusive on the balcony, but dramatically clear in the privacy of the Paris apartment. Their body language registers every pinch and punch delivered to one another as the friction of these two wildly stubborn sticks rubbing together waits for the sparks to fly. Fired up, these two spar entertainingly well, but the outcome always remains obvious from the moment they met on the balcony to their sit down beside one another for their post-apocalyptic breakfast with their newly discarded spouses, served up reluctantly by the not-as-funny-as-she-should-be French maid, played by Sue Kelvin. We see it in her annoyed eyes as she looks out over the war zone with frustration, wanting them all to get it together, get a grip, and leave her to her work. She has no patience for these Brits.
“I had no idea that people behaved like that. It’s disgusting,” declares a shocked and appalled Sibyl, but we can’t join her in that arrogant stance. The tables are imbalanced towards the two ex-partner lovers. One of the clever concoctions created by director Kent’s revival is that it’s utterly obvious that the stuffy Victor and the silly Sibyl are as ridiculous to us as they are disgusting to Coward. In a 2005 article, Penny Farfan, from the point of view of queer theory, believes that “the subversiveness of [Coward’s] sexual identity is reflected in his work,” and that Private Lives puts forth the idea that “the conventional gender norms on which compulsory heterosexuality depends.” John Lahr in a 1982 study of Coward’s plays writes, “Elyot and Amanda’s outrageousness is used to propound the aesthetics of high camp – an essentially homosexual view of the world that justifies detachment.” Interestingly, the two are equals in their absolute ambiguity to a standardized tortured conscience of what they have done to their newly married partners, but they don’t really care. The inequality of spirit within their new marriages speaks volumes about the doomed nature of those unions. We want them to find a way to work it out together, even though we see their predetermined argumentative stance as a tact that will never fully go away, even with a safe word used often and regularly. They will fight and love until the day they die. And Private Lives believes that is a far better union than one that is safe and sound, equating that ideal to boredom, dullness, and empty of all charm. This production, although not perfect in the sexual chemistry, reminds us of the passion we all want, without the slaps and explosive flying glassware. In a time of self-isolation, a little fire is more exciting now than it ever has been. So sign up to digitaltheatre.com, and check yourself into Coward’s Private Lives, and all the others that are being offered up. I’ll be lapping up another fiery couple in Funny Girl tonight. Come join me in my streaming glory!