The private lives of the stars in Coward’s play of that name have often been as dramatically out of control as the affairs of the couple at the centre of the action. Burton and Taylor famously revived it, though not their own long-running romance, in 1983, seven years after their second divorce. Their horribly convincing portrayal of Elyot and Amanda’s warring adoration was a kind of enforced method-acting.
The equally turbulent Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith had taken the roles in a 1972 production, when their son Toby was three. Fitting that he should now be playing Elyot himself at the Gielgud Theatre since the director of that was the eponymous Sir John. Extraordinary too to see the expressions of his own mother and late father fighting for possession of his handsome features as Elyot swerves between utter devotion and total hatred.
However, Stephens is more than the sum of his parental parts, and he brings to this ultra-Cowardian hero a haughty insouciance and bleak self-contempt that are all his own. As his female mirror image, condemned to match but never to mesh with his, Anna Chancellor is no less formidable. In their hands, Elyot and Amanda become studies in destructive power.
They seem to hold the other’s fate, and therefore their own as well, in the proverbial palm of their hand, and yet they are so far from moderating their own behaviour in the interest of getting on, as opposed to getting off, with each other, that this power implodes and leaves them in pieces. Instead of being extended in companionship, the palm is a weapon, deployed stingingly against the other’s cheek. Whatever else this play is about, to the modern eye, in director Jonathan Kent’s full-blooded reading it has an unmistakeable theme of domestic violence.
Its other great preoccupation is surely obsession itself. Coward had already written of forbidden behaviour seven years earlier in The Vortex, in which drug addiction is generally seen as a public substitute for Coward’s own disallowed pursuit of homosexual love. With Private Lives, we are at the end of the Thirties, Coward’s and the century’s. This time the treasured object of the hero’s desires is unattainable by being a divorcee; not just any old divorcee either, but Elyot’s own ex.
Yet they must have each other. Fate seems to see it the same way since they find themselves on second honeymoons bang next to each other’s hotel room. Like all compulsions worthy of the name, theirs brings chaos and heartbreak for the others in their lives, or rather the ones who would like to be in their lives but who find the space already taken. In Elyot’s case this is Anna-Louise Plowman’s sweet but simpering Sybil, barely a pussycat compared with the ravenous puma that is Amanda; in Amanda’s case it is Anthony Calf’s tediously decent Victor. In an echo of the First Couple’s hostilities, these two redundant spouses even manage to fall out with each other without the compensation of a fling. With such dysfunction, collateral damage is inevitable.
Coward may have written the play in a couple of days, but he had lived it for years. That is to say, he was as familiar as Elyot with the lures of narcissism and decadence. In fact he is so bent on removing these lives from the social realism of a period of depression, tension and austerity that he gives us even fewer clues about the man’s origins and sources of playboy wealth than does Fitzgerald about Jay Gatsby. All we need to know about this world is the impossibility of happiness in such a toxic bubble. Narcissism of this order is the enemy of meaningful love, and that is the social reality. Who cares if the driving coincidence of the plot is preposterous. Everything’s preposterous, and that’s the reality too.
Autobiographical? Yes and no, as with so much Coward. In the sense that he feared for the soul in a world incapable of altruistic love, no: Elyot is too caught up in the pursuit of the emotional fix to appreciate this truth. In the sense that he was suspicious of conformity, yes: Coward does invest his wanton breakers of convention with heroism and even tragic grandeur. Jonathan Kent and his designer go with him on this, contrasting the ragged insides of human passion with the sumptuous interiors where it can expose itself.
Coward would have loved, and probably feared, the irony of privacy having gone so public, thanks to social media which even he could never have envisaged. Being well connected meant something different in his day. Still, this play was dashed off in no time and yet has dug in for an eternity. In that respect it is just like txts and msgs flung out – until now – with not a care for posterity, and therefore as modern as you could wish.
Review by Alan Franks @alanfranks
35-37 Shaftesbury Avenue,
Content updated 1st May 2014