Excellently acted by a top-flight cast and happily received by a packed house, this modern-dress version of Noël Coward’s 1930 masterpiece is alive with contradictions. All of Coward’s brittle dialogue has been retained, but here delivered by 2012 characters. ‘What a cad!’ says Victor of his rival. ‘What utter, utter fools!’ says Elyot, ruefully describing himself and his on/off true-love Amanda. And there is talk of glamorous holidays in St Moritz, Cannes and Tunis, of watching the Tiller Girls, of sending urgent messages by telegraph.
Never mind the loss in authenticity, it seems, there is everything to be gained by the nowness of the performances. Private Lives is the latest Belvoir reboot of classic plays, this year following O’Neill’s Strange Interlude and Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Each has been successful at the box office, none more so perhaps than this one, sold out before it opened.
Directed and designed by Belvoir’s new Artistic Director Ralph Myers, the no-interval production features assured and expert comedy performances all round. Elyot, the defining role Coward wrote for himself, is here the languidly baffled Toby Schmitz (recently announced as next year’s Belvoir Hamlet). He spars, snaps and steams with ex-wife Amanda, exuberantly played by Zahra Newman. Their shrugged-off partners, Victor and Sybil (‘Don’t quibble, Sybil!’) are Toby Truslove and Eloise Mignon, both at once figures of fun and sympathy.
The setting is unhelpful. In the first scene it’s a very plain hotel corridor with two doors and a lift: dialogue about the romantic moonlight and the view of yachts in the Deauville bay is unsupported. And when the cast oversee a minimalist change to Amanda’s unfurnished Paris flat the lift must remain.
Coward’s idle, super-wealthy characters continue to fascinate with their determined superficiality, though their 1920s upper-class attitudes can sometimes hit a sour note. When Elyot/Coward jokes that ‘certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs’ there were unamused rumblings among the Belvoir faithful.
Images: (top) Zahra Newman & Toby Schmitz and (lower) Toby Truslove, Zahra Newman, Toby Schmitz & Eloise Mignon. Photographer: Heidrun Lohr