|Photo by by Heidrun Lohr
BELVOIR presents PRIVATE LIVES by Noel Coward, in the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills.
What a surprise (pleasant for some, or, otherwise, for others) to find at the Belvoir St Theatre that PRIVATE LIVES by Noel Coward was scheduled into their programming. It speaks volumes as to the essential old fashioned values and conservatism of the Company of Artists that ordain an important part of the opportunities we have when we attend the performing arts culture in Sydney. I appreciate their tendency, if not always the product. More cannily, it might be a hint at their vision to broaden the spread of their demographics, audience. Indeed, many of my friends working in the many local Community Theatres, from Penrith to the Genesian Theatre, Hunter's Hill, Rockdale etc, were excited about measuring their productions of this very popular play against the standards of the Belvoir St.and were attending that theatre for the first time. Some were very happy with their own work.
I am not so sure how many Australian playwrights seeking opportunities for performance, especially at a prestigious house such as Belvoir, were pleased, or, were envious, indeed, of the reputation of Noel Coward, that one of his oft seen and produced plays had gained a position in the 2011 Sydney professional repertoire - especially, as the playwright was receiving no fiscal advantage of being presented - of course, it is absolutely clear and free profit for the house, unlike the DEATH OF A SALESMAN, it is out of copyright. [N.B. one of my correspondents: That Guy, informs me that PRIVATE LIVES is still in copyright. Maybe that "girl' in the Belvoir office who bungled up the Miller work, could clear it up, definitively, for us, unless she is still on holiday.] Canny Mr Myers (I wondered what Kit Brookman, an actor and promising playwright, the Assistant Director for this production, thought about this choice of play. I wondered if he felt it an odd choice considering his first hand knowledge, from family and friends, of the difficulties of getting original work onto the stages in Sydney).
Noel Coward is, of course, one of the legends of the English theatre - a legend, according to my reading, as much for his writing for the theatre, as to his glamorous celebrity status all the way through his life, from, it seems the age of 11 to his passing in 1973, at the age of 74. Classically, five of his plays are esteemed and staple regulars in the commercial and amateur theatre, locally and worldwide: HAYFEVER (1928); PRIVATE LIVES (1930); DESIGN FOR LIVING; (1935); PRESENT LAUGHTER (1939) and BLITHE SPIRIT (1941). PRIVATE LIVES has a special kind of status, because of the legendary fame of the original actors: Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier and the beautiful Adrienne Allen, and the torturous and deliciously challenging linguistic game-play presented by the text. It is a fiendishly wonderful task of style in comic mode. Not easy.
Having Toby Schmitz available to give Noel Coward's Elyot Chase a chase, apparently, was an irresistible temptation, for Belvoir. I, and my friends, certainly thought it was a reason for anticipation of a good night out. Mr Schmitz did not let us down. After his practice of vocal pyrotechnics in certain speeches he delivered in STRANGE INTERLUDE, we knew we were onto a fairly safe bet for exquisite fun. His ability to give verbal pitch whilst making content-sense over an extremely, extremely long breath-demand was and is Olympian.
Ralph Myers, has built with this production of PRIVATE LIVES on the impression that he made, in late 2008, with his production of FRANKENSTEIN at the STC, as to his skill as a director. Having Mr Schmitz as Elyot was a 'jewel' to possess, but it was necessary to find actors of equal skill and joie de vivre. Casting the right actors, the late great Richard Wherrett used to say, was the greater part of the success of any theatrical venture. This Mr Myers mostly has done. Zahra Newman (Amanda Prynne), last seen in Sydney in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, was intelligently witty and proficiently skilful, an alert foil to Mr Schmitz; ably supported by Toby Truslove (Victor Prynne), in a performance that builds on the intelligent and good work that he revealed in STRANGE INTERLUDE, earlier this season - a kind of self-deprecating goodness at base. All three of these actors have developed the technical proficiency to speak the lines briskly, each capping each other without a pause and using the language of the playwright with an attitude of it being part of the performer's instrument as a tool for charm, and used accurately to carry, as well as the comic wit, a kind of emotional weight.
This is what Eloise Mignon (Sybil Chase) did not appear to understand. She was not, by comparison, comfortable in these dualisms of Coward's language-world, and her physical characterisation was fairly unsophisticated and flatly broad - no real bounce or cultural insight to the original world to build from (my companions thought that Caroline Craig was being channeled, here!). Fortunately, in the Australian sounds, "in our own voice(s)" that Mr Myers broaches as his preferred house style sound, at Belvoir (including Ms Newman's Jamaican/American sound), this Sybil still worked in a kind of shocking 'bogan' way - SYLVANIA WATERS/THE SHIRE qualities, lots of money it seems, for with this Sybil there was no other reason apparent to justify the marriage choice of Elyot - was it her youth, perhaps?. This Elyot had clearly 'gone a mucker all right" in marrying this Sybil. For Elyot Chase, even in this Australiana, a daring choice of bride. Mish Grigor as the French maid, Louise, plays for physical jokes in what is essentially a verbal joke - in French, with an Aussie accent, of course.
From Frances Gray on Noel Coward and PRIVATE LIVES:
Two people are close; they try to pass the time, get bored, quarrel, crack jokes; they encounter two other people and don't make much of them; nothing really happens; at the end of the play they are in the same state as they were at the beginning. If this sounds like WAITING FOR GODOT this is not wholly coincidental. For all his dislike of the style and form employed by the Theatre of the Absurd, Coward dramatised in the story of Elyot and Amanda the sense of inhabiting a universe without meaning or controlling force; in the twenties, anticipating Beckett, he earned a label for himself in Robert Grave's summary of that decade : 'Coward was the dramatist of disillusion, as (T.S.) Eliot was its tragic poet, Aldous Huxley its novelist, and James Joyce its epic-prose writer.'
The difference between Coward and this exalted company is not so much one of attitude as one of resonance. Beckett, or the Eliot of THE WASTE LAND, or Joyce, convey with irresistible force the sense of possibilities exhausted, of convictions tested on the intellect and the nerves and found wanting; the bare conditions of the GODOT tramps reflect their existential stripping, the one slim conviction on which they ground themselves. Coward's characters, stripped of beliefs, have egos to keep them going; they forget the outside world to live luxuriously like exotic waterflies on a surface tension composed of personal charm and the admiration it attracts. If they have a conviction amid their foggy awareness of 'cosmic thingummies', it's a belief in love: not love as a redeeming factor in existence, a goal to strive for, but as a mischievous presence that will creep up on you somehow and strip you of charm and dignity; despite all the evidence to the contrary, they cannot help thinking that, this time, things might be different, that they will manage not to kill the golden goose even though they have no intention of changing themselves. Is this play then a 'serious comedy'? Not ''just the 'lightest of light comedies', but as a John Lahr describes it - "a situation comedy where the situation - two people in love and unable to live together - is tragic" 
Ralph Myers on Coward:
We think of Coward and we see grand pianos and brandy and gramophone records and we think that is what the plays are about. But in fact they're not; like all great plays they're about something profound. They're about love, and about being alive, and about trying to be happy and how hard that is. Coward's genius is to wrap that up in a confection that makes you think that you're watching a stage full of beautiful people in evening dress saying not very much in a frightfully clever way, rather quickly..."Love and being alive and trying to be happy - profound, indeed. Now, I believe, in some degree with Mr Myers, about a serious undertow present in Mr Coward's work, and always felt that the way to succeed with Coward was treat it in earnest, play it, perhaps, like Edward Albee, (and, incidentally, play Albee, as if it were Coward), so the love motif observed by Mr Myers, is, I agree, somewhat true, but, what Mr Coward said of his own work was, that it was an exhibition of his "talent to amuse". Essentially, PRIVATE LIVES, for all the pleasing academia I have earlier quoted, is about that : a talent to amuse as biographer Philip Hoare describes:
This play, mused in Mr Coward's head for some time, and then with the Muse of Gertrude Lawrence clearly inspiring him, he, while recovering from 'flu in Shanghai, wrote it down in four days : 'I thought it was a shrewd and witty comedy, well constructed on the whole, but psychologically unstable; however its entertainment value seemed obvious enough, and its acting opportunities for Gertie and me admirable...' " Always the showman, Coward's instinct was for impact, not art. ... PRIVATE LIVES allowed the Coward-Lawrence team to exhibit their showy intimacy." Laughter before societal critique, perhaps? The second act of this play, an extended duologue for the two principal actors, famously, was a nightly duel between these two competitive, but mutually admiring performers. What with their renowned vocal dexterity, wit, piano-playing and dancing skills, the time length of that central act was entirely dependent on the willingness for the two of them to engage in spontaneous improvisations of one-up-manship - perfect 'dandies'. The audience delighted in the ease with which Noel and Gertie 'played'. It was difficult to decide whether they were acting or just being themselves.Whether they were acting a script or improvising. Sometimes they extended the night hilariously and at others cut it off, precipitously. The problem, then, with this production is that neither, Mr Schmitz nor Ms Newman, with the second act design choices, no piano etc, have the opportunity to reveal the triple threat virtuosics that Mr Coward and Ms Lawrence had, to improvise with, and so what with Mr Myers 'bent' to promulgate the 'love' aspect of his production, the play as written, reveals itself to be repetitious and a little tiresome. We get that they are unable, really, to sustain a 'loving' relationship – if not on the first "Sollocks" (their safe-word to break the tension as it rises to a personal antagonism, danger point) – then definitely on the second one. We don't need the reiterated third "Sollocks', for we get that without the fascination of others admiring them, boredom with themselves, soon overwhelms their love interest. Thus the second act becomes a little exaggeratedly overlong. The two characters "believe only in themselves and their talk is unremittingly self obsessed"  Elyot and Amanda's charm in the offerings of Mr Schmitz and Ms Newman become less and less bearable as the act winds on.
I bubbled quite happily with the first act with Victor and, even this Sybil, and was enormously relieved when they arrived at the end of act two and then featured so wonderfully in the third. The cruel talent of the bickering quartet, when together, to amuse, certainly bears out Evelyn Waugh's dictum : 'Manners are especially the need of the plain. The pretty can get away with anything." The play is really frivolous about the serious.The direction of the actors by Mr Myers is first class.
I essentially went with the Australian 'sounds' because the speed of the style was paramount and worked. I still had to go through tedious mental gymnastics in hearing the European sites of the play and just, as I did with SEX WITH STRANGERS, just read that these were Australians on a very European honeymoon (I know I am boring, I know!). Mind you the verbal wit of these Australians seemed fairly uncharacteristic to me, except in the milieu of some of my gay friends' drunken parties. If you can locate Australians with this ability to sustain comedy of this quality, and not be necessarily drunk, please send the address and/or arrange a meeting/dinner – I will come, just to be entertained – but I am a doubting Thomas about that possibility. Seeing life like that, will be believing the world of this production, which, as it stands in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre, I am a little pushed to swallow - I know I am boring and maybe just un-Australian for not going quietly along with this artistic conceit.
The less said about the really awkward choices of the set, the better (Set Designer, Ralph Myers.) I had heard that the play was not, despite rumour, set on the Gold Coast, but in the original locations. Well, the first act location of this production presented us with the dull hall way to the elevator shafts with hotel doors to the apartments without architraves - a low cost architectural statement, and door locks that fell away when said door is slammed, suggested to me a very cheap hotel, in the realm of a backpacker's financial capability. To drink cocktails in the elevator hallway seemed to me a fairly dreary, less than romantic idea, no matter the 'expressionistic' lighting touches of Damien Cooper. The second act Parisian apartment was a cheaply modish jerry-built job indeed with next to no furniture of any taste. The wardrobe, costumes for the characters, supplied by the usual , House of Alice Babidge was very declasse indeed, but up to the usual look we have come to expect from almost every piece she has designed. It is consistent in its visual achievements - and like all good fashions, fairly subjective as to whether it is of good taste and indicative of the wearers.
I was sad not to have the potency of the Cheap Music of the original play (Composition and Sound Design, Stefan Gregory) but that, too, is a subjective response - some liked the Muzak in the hallway and truly loved the collection of gramophone/L.P.'s that Amanda had in her apartment and were played and mimed, too. I missed the grand piano and wished for some of the brandy they were drinking.
Despite the above, I had a very pleasant night at PRIVATE LIVES. The writing was marvellous, the acting mostly terrific, the direction clean, clear and respectful. Mr Myers should just get himself a better set designer and all would be near perfect.
A choice of play that might reflect a contemporary generational expresion of a time of disillusion. Mr Coward writing after the Great War and having lived through the boom of the Jazz Age, then the crash of the world financial markets and the Great Depression, may have for the artists at Belvoir written a very Australian response to the present world at war and the Great Financial Crisis. His song TWENTIETH CENTURY BLUES may also be just as relevant a tune for our times as this play. Or, not? Am I simply trying to justify or put the square peg of contemporary reinterpretation into the round hole of Mr Coward's work? Pat East, in her letter to Editor (Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, October 19, 2012), suggested that this is what Simon Stone, the resident director at Belvoir, was inferring in his article responding to the DEATH OF A SALESMAN copyright infringement story: "The true classics are ripe for reinterpretation at any time" (Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, 18th October, 2012)? Twentieth century 'blues' onto the twenty-first century disillusionments.
Or, should we, Belvoir, just encourage Australian writers to write culturally-relevant plays with a confection of laughter coating and put them on the stage instead? Perhaps: Ian Meadows with BETWEEN TWO WAVES at the Griffin, for instance, seems a probable candidate, as he manages a Climate Change 'discussion/debate' within a vivid romantic comedy; Lachlan Philpott with his TRUCKSTOP this year at the Q Theatre and the Seymour Centre is alive and challenging our cultural flabbiness- not so funny though; Damien Millar with his THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD, surely, one of the best Australian plays in the last decade, especially as far as cultural relevancy is concerned - again, not so funny. Or what about PRIVATE LIVES assistant director, Kit Brookman? What does he have on his desk at the moment - a play for sure? Four living Australian writers that I have named. Any other suggestions? I am certain that there are......
Meanwhile, at Belvoir, we can see PRIVATE LIVES by Noel Coward as a serious examination of love, life and the difficult pursuit of happiness, within the confection of a few laughs? A Profound Experience.
- Modern Dramatists. Noel Coward by Frances Gray, Macmillan, 1987.
- Coward the Playwright by John Lahr, Methuen, 1983.
- Noel Coward by Philip Hoare, Sinclair-Stevenson,1995.