It seemed impossibly good to be true, too much of a dream to miss, the most tantalising of carrots to be dangled in front of subscribers a year ago when the 2012 season was announced: Ralph Myers directing Toby Schmitz in Noël Coward’s Private Lives. In a nutshell, the play is about two newly-wed couples – Amanda and Victor, Elyot and Sybil – who go on their honeymoon. To the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda were previously married, and now they’re are about to find out all over again why they got divorced in the first place. Considering Coward wrote the piece as a vehicle for himself (playing the role of Elyot, Schmitz’s character) and the censors tried to ban it upon its premiere in London in 1930, it’s pretty much still bang-on the money, still definitive in its wit, almost-perfect in its plot, and utterly beguiling in its critique of modernity and the rich, to paraphrase Belvoir’s season book.
Schmitz is a kind of theatrical wunderkind in his own right, not dissimilar to Coward in a way; Myers, in an article in The Australian three weeks ago, described Schmitz as “very sharp, very funny, very droll, very much like Coward in many ways ... Elyot is a kind of personification of Coward; Coward wrote the role for himself to play and gave himself all the best lines. Toby is kind of him.” And his delight in playing the part is evident, from his first moment on stage to his last. But it’s not Schmitz’s show. Far from it. Part of Myers’ direction of the play has been to assemble a cast that can run with the piece, the language and its rhythms and mannerisms and images and make it breathe (and sing). Zahra Newman as Amanda, Eloise Mignon as Sibyl, Toby Truslove as Victor – and even Mish Grigor as Louise, the maid – all steal the show at points, and no member of the cast truly outshines another. In that respect, it is a true ensemble piece, and it is an absolute delight to watch, from Mignon’s first tentative moments on stage to the chaotic and violently passionate final image.
It’s a wonderful ninety minutes of theatre, and I don’t think the fact that it’s not ‘in period’ matters. In fact, I don’t think it matters at all anymore; it’s not about ‘Then’, just as most classics are never truly about their respective ‘Then’s, but are increasingly relevant to the hereandnow. Reading a copy of the play later, it’s interesting to note just how specific, how precise, Coward’s written stage directions are, and just how different Myers’ production is. Not different so much in fundamental fabric of the production as in the staging and near-total disregard for Cowards’ directions as they are written. It’s a bold decision, and I think Myers’ production is stronger for it. In his director’s notes in the production’s program, Myers talks about the preconceptions that go with such a play: “[we] think of Coward and we see grand pianos and brandy and gramophone records and we think that is what the plays are about. But in fact they’re not; like all great plays they’re about something profound. They’re about love, and about being alive, and about trying to be happy and how hard that is. Coward’s genius is to wrap that up in a confection that makes you think that you’re just watching a stage full of beautiful people in evening dress saying not very much in a frightfully clever way, rather quickly. He makes it fun.” In stripping away the confectionery and throwing it head-first kicking and screaming into the here-and-now, you’re not quite sure, at first, how it’s going to go. But as the arguments and quarrels begin and the bickering goes back and forth on and on, like a tennis game, tit for tat, as couples slam doors in their partners’ faces, all you can do is grin, and sit back and watch, go along with the ride. And what a ride it is.
Part of Private Lives’ charm comes from the behaviour of its affluent well-off characters, in watching them misbehave and wreck each other’s lives and dreams. “Coward uses the wealthy as his subject,” Myers continues, “not because they’re special, or any more interesting than the rest of us, but because they’re idle. They don’t have anything to do other than sit around and talk and drink and smoke and fight. If they had to go to work then they’d never get down to the core business of tearing each other apart.” And they make a pretty good fist of it too, Myers and his cast.
There are many moments to adore in this production – from the musical interludes in the ‘Sollocks’ (itself a contraction of the signal word ‘Solomon Isaacs’, and including an ingenious staging of Phil Collins), to the opening of Act Two when Schmitz and Newman are silhouetted in the door of their room, holding lamps and cocktail glasses, their lips locked in a passionate embrace, before they emerge into the space, setting up their deliciously decadent existence; the repetition of Glenn Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’ leading Schmitz to remark upon the orchestra’s limited repertoire; Newman’s dance in her black dress, her shadows amplified on the walls around her, almost voodooistic; the mounting awkwardness of the final scene before it degenerates into an all-out brawl between Eloise Mignon and Toby Truslove. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was a performance, you’d almost believe that Mignon could seriously hurt him.
At the start, it seemed there were multiple ways in which the play could potentially end, but by the end, it’s pretty clear that there really is only one way it can end, will end, has to end. It doesn't matter that there isn't a tail coat or an evening dress to be seen in sight, nor should it, because ultimately the play is not about the superficial facade of outward appearances like clothing; it's about something deeper, more profound, and more difficult to articulate. In the end, it’s Coward’s wit, charm and glee that shine through in this production, brought to life on Belvoir’s corner stage by Myers and his dazzling cast. Though the old adage runs that ‘what happens in private should stay in private,’ it certainly makes for a wonderful evening – watching the rich and affluent at their worst, behaving like the rest of us – and I dare you to miss it.