Private Lives, Donmar Warehouse
“Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”
Truth be told I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near another production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives but slave as I am to the allure of my favourite actresses, the presence of Rachael Stirling at the Donmar Warehouse meant that I couldn’t resist. I should say that my initial reticence isn’t because I don’t like the play, in fact I really do, it is rather that it can be tricky to make Coward plays feel fresh once you’ve already seen them.
Credit then, to director Michael Longhurst to actually making an effort to do just that and perhaps inevitably, given it is what I was asking for, it turns out I wasn’t a fan of his interventions. Turning to the darker underbelly of the toxic relationship between unexpectedly reunited divorcees Elyot and Amanda and making them vividly explicit, there’s a markedly different tone to the play and an unbalanced approach to the gender dynamic which feels problematic at best.
In a nutshell, this production ends up feeling like a domestic violence drama, such is the brutality of Stephen Mangan’s Elyot, far from the charming rake oft depicted, and it is hard to know what to make of it. It’s such a different reading of the play but if the intent is to look at power dynamics or Stockholm syndrome for abusers, there isn’t enough there in the rest of the material to justify it. Perversely I ended up wanting it like it used to be…
Stirling is naturally superb as Amanda, opinionated to the max as she lies left, right and centre and smouldering with whomever she chooses. And there’s good support from supporting players Laura Carmichael and Sargon Yelda as the new abandoned spouses in Hildegard Bechtler’s design of louche balconies and draping costumery. But I clearly should be careful what I ask for, fiddle with Noël Coward’s play at your peril.