Noel Coward’s eloquent knockabout comedy about a relationship defined by mutual abuse is a regularly revived classic that is beautifully written. Other than one outmoded crack about African women having rings through their noses — well the play was penned in 1930 and Anna Chancellor buries her face in a velvet pillow in what appears to be shame after delivering it — Private Lives almost always gives its audience the pleasure they have paid for. Although maybe not for those who saw the 1990 revival starring Joan Collins and Keith Baxter, which apparently bombed.
But most of the major productions since then have done well to very well. So quite what directors think they can bring to a play that remains fresh in the memory not only because it is exquisitely articulate but because it was probably only a matter of a year or three since it was last staged, is hard to see.
Still, Jonathan Kent’s production, seen earlier at Chichester, undoubtedly has class with Chancellor as Amanda and a raffish Toby Stephens as Elyot, two egos who are almost as in love with each other as they are with themselves. For the benefit of those who did not catch any of the previous versions, the combustible Amanda and Elyot divorced from each other five years before the play opens. Their accidental reunion happens on the first evening of their respective honeymoons with their new spouses. And through delicious coincidence, they have taken adjacent rooms in the same hotel.
Stephens does callous very well. And barely concealed boredom, too. He drips with self-loathing for the compromise he made by marrying Anna-Louise Plowman’s vacuous Sibyl. Meanwhile, on the next room’s balcony, Chancellor’s elegant Amanda — alternately highly strung and haughtily laid-back — is also resigned to a life of passionless affection, in this case most of it meted out by Anthony Calf’s proudly normal Victor, who expresses his passion with smothering hugs. When the divorced couple elope to Paris, Stephens and Chancellor interweave affection and aggression with almost percussive rhythm.
Since Howard Davies’s 2001 version with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, revivals of Private Lives have tended to accentuate the dark, violent side of this charged relationship. And the same is true here. When the blows rain down, they do so with a shocking force. That Kent’s production manages this without leaving you the sense that Amanda is drawn to a wife-beater would normally be seen as a virtue.
But Davies’s version with Rickman and Duncan didn’t shirk from that disturbing logic. Rather it was a comedy that might have ended in murder. And, despite the qualities of Kent’s entertaining production, Davies’s remains the revival offering something genuinely powerful and new.