In Private Lives
, love's not just a sport – it's a bloodsport.
Director/set designer Ralph Myers stages the play in a space exactly not like the romantic tree-lined terrace Coward’s script calls for: a clinically empty space with two upstage doors to separate hotel rooms, with the doors of a single elevator in between. Coward’s distant orchestra is now hotel lobby muzak: the romantic monotonousness of ‘Moonlight Serenade’ on loop.
It’s here that certain “cosmic thingummies” have conspired to bring together former married couple Elyot (Toby Schmitz) and Amanda (Zahra Newman) – who lock eyes across the room with all the transfixed slow-mo horror of watching a terrible accident unfold. Their marriage was a spectacular disaster. But a switch has been flipped, and in mere minutes and despite themselves they are desperately in love again.
The hitch is that they’re hitched. Amanda and Elyot are both honeymooning with new and inappropriate partners: Elyot with the insufferable Sybil (the blonde-bewigged Eloise Mignon), Amanda with the insipid Victor (eternal schmuck Toby Truslove). The couplings are intentionally uninspired – though when Schmitz’s Elyot trudges downstage and says what he wants is “undramatic” love, it’s clear even he’s not convinced. Amanda and Elyot abandon their new spouses and flee headlong to Paris, even as the first foreboding signs of their old destructive ways begin to emerge.
It’s a roller coaster of a second act. Around their own bed of bliss Amanda and Elyot soar and dip between blazing passion and blazing contempt for one another, occasionally switching on the record player to soothe their savage beastliness. (The sound of a record winding down, of course, the perfect aural equivalent to a receding erection.) Other times they hastily implement two minutes of ‘time out’ – again the sporting analogy – and wait for the seconds to tick away on a bulky digital timer. The device, one suspects, was conceived mostly for the benefit of the audience, but it’s a delicious thought that Amanda and Elyot picked it up for this ritual specifically.
There are pratfalls, objects fired across the room, rapidly opening and closing doors and spit-takes, but the production wisely resists emulating Elyot’s perpetual air of flippancy. There’s thoughtful handling of harder, darker stuff, particularly in the way Myers lets Elyot and Amanda’s Punch and Judy show resemble actual violence, while sound designer Stefan Gregory's wacky kazoo-laden soundtrack carries on obliviously. Amanda’s third-act black eye is a bitter truth amid the over-the-top hijinks. The unflinching honesty of the production and our modern sensibilities combine to give Private Lives
a genuine power to discomfit.
That said, notwithstanding the satisfying mess on stage, the sense of closure in Coward’s script and this production is exceedingly tidy. Letting Elyot off the hook somewhat, costume designer Alice Babidge puts Schmitz in a too-large T-shirt for the closing scenes, making him look less like a perpetrator of domestic violence and more like a naughty schoolboy ready to see the error of his ways.
But, as Sydney audiences are well aware by now, Schmitz is at his best behaving badly. In the role that Coward wrote for himself, Schmitz’s own talent to amuse is on full display, squawking in Basil Fawlty-esque panic or rattling off Elyot’s acidic put-downs with supreme confidence. Otherwise he’s grinningly crowdsurfing the audience with his eyes. He also, somewhat refreshingly, allows himself to look like an ass: when he finally casts off his bathrobe to brawl Victor he looks like an outmatched Bugs Bunny flexing his drooping biceps
. He and Newman get along like the kind of house on fire in which there are no survivors. Apart from her migratory accent, Newman radiates wildness – you can even see it in the riot of her hair – flinging verbal venom and vinyl with a totally convincing intent to maim.
Truslove, playing a character with few if any actual funny lines, finds comedy gold in the silences. His quiet bewilderment at how appallingly he’s treated by everyone on stage – including Mish Grigor’s phlegmatic scene-stealing maid, popping up randomly like a bit of performance art – is endlessly funny. More than that, Victor’s stoic hands-in-pockets resignation makes for one of the tenderer moments in the show. Mignon is, it has to be said, appropriately irritating as cuckquean to Victor’s cuckold.
Coward himself gleefully reported that his play’s promise of cocktails, evening dress, repartee and irreverent allusions to copulation caused “a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office”. Some 82 years later, Myers and cast have more than served Coward’s wordy, witty marital melee – though without quite so much evening dress. Their production will rightly have respectable people, and quite a few unrespectable ones, queuing round the block all over again.