With its gags about domestic abuse and depiction of a relationship so toxic it could poison the nation’s water supply, Noël Coward’s West End staple ‘Private Lives’ has been notable by its absence from our stages in the #MeToo era.
Now outgoing Donmar boss Michael Longhurst is the one to finally grasp the nettle, with fascinating but slightly inconsistent results.
The 1930 comedy concerns divorced middle-aged couple Amanda and Elyot, who coincidentally bump into each other on their rebound honeymoons in France and immediately, recklessly reignite their relationship. They behave terribly, to each other and their new spouses, but the pair’s sheer, childish incorrigibility has always sort of styled this out: it’s like fretting that Tom and Jerry are in a toxic relationship.
Longhurst’s production isn’t revisionist. But it strips away the protective barrier of everything being one big joke; it injects naturalism to this most stylised of comedies, and in doing so makes it much bleaker.
From the moment we meet Stephen Mangan’s Elyot we sense something is off – he’s witty, but he’s also thin-skinned, and irritable at his boring new wife Sibyl (Laura Carmichael). He lacks the suaveness of a typical Coward leading man - there’s something shambling and inarticulate about him, a middle-aged man-child who avoids eye contact with others and defaults to ‘sullen’ when he’s not personally having a good time.
Stirling’s Amanda is loud, cold and imperious - a splash more traditional than Mangan, but brutal in her total lack of warmth towards her new husband Vincent (Sargon Yelda).
To state the obvious, they are both extremely difficult, damaged people, and it’s not clear what either of them is doing on honeymoon… and then bump into each other, and are suddenly animated by a ravening spark that quickly burns away their new marriages. Even early on, in the first flushes of reunion, what’s normally played as amusing bickering feels darker: there is real rage on Mangan’s face as the pair quibble over the details of how much luggage they’ll take when they abscond.
The play’s pivotal middle act is where Longhurst’s production really comes into its own. As we catch up with the couple in the middle of a multi-day bender in Paris, the toxicity of their relationship is laid bare. It always has been: the scene ends in violence and recriminations.
Longhurst and his cast simply embrace it as realism and don’t laugh it off. It’s still a funny show. But when the laughs stop, they stop: Amanda and Elyot viciously turn on each other at a second’s notice, with the sort of unselfconscious rage that abusers hide from the outside world.
Is this what Coward really intended? We underestimate him at our peril, but the man literally starred in the original production of this play, which was viewed as somewhat scandalous but not gritty in the sense we understand it. In part it’s become more gritty as society has changed. For a long time Longhurst’s take works really well, successfully reclaiming Amanda and Elyot from caricature. But it struggles to come to an exact point in the final act, which simply isn’t written as dark or pointed enough to build on act two. It finds itself teetering between shruggingly letting Amanda and Elyot off the hook entirely and bleakly suggesting violence is an inevitable part of male-female dynamics.
Stirling and Mangan deliver: I didn’t mind a lower laugh rate for the sake of a bit of psychological acuity. His take on Elyot, in particular, is original and fascinating, and if she’s a little more trad then we need her comic firepower. But in the end I think Longhurst is too trusting of the text to see him through to a meaningful ending: there is a brilliant dark take in ‘Private Lives’, but this is only two-thirds of it.