Private Lives” , like much in Noel Coward’s oeuvre, is a work that can be seen at more than one level. Sheridan Morley called it the “lightest of light comedies” but today Oliver Soden sees a great deal more in it, and I think he is right. The depths are not particularly psychological, we are not into Freud here. But Soden says that to miss Coward’s seriousness is to miss his wit. If the play is light it is deceptively so – another mask obscuring some hidden truths.
The truths include what Coward said about marriage – that it is a “fatal curse”. Sex is at the heart of the play and, no doubt in Noel’s eyes, at the heart of the curse. As he wrote to Gertrude Lawrence “Copulation has been the basis of the dear old British Drama for so long, we might as well salute it…”
Any production of “Private Lives” has to place the mutual physical attraction of Elyot and Amanda central. It was the basis on which their marriage was built and is suddenly driving their behaviour again “You don’t hold any mystery for me darling, do you mind? There isn’t a particle of you I don’t know, remember and want.’ says Elyot.
So why did marriage for Amanda and Elyot fail first time around if, to put it crudely, they couldn’t keep their hands off one another. Their suggestions to each other that it was infidelity are unconvincing. If they were unfaithful that was likely to have been effect rather than cause.
The chilling “That was the first time you hit me” from Amanda in Act Two is really the clue and the subsequent all out fight confirms it. Who started the violence in the marriage, and now again, is almost incidental. Gentlemen don’t hit women no matter how provocative they may feel them to have been. That Amanda, an emancipated woman, fights back and gives as good as she gets doesn’t justify the initial violence. Elyot’s line “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs” suggests a misogyny on his part inappropriate if the play was just a “light comedy”.
The actors portraying the characters in this very physical psychodrama need exquisite timing in both the love and the fight scenes. Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling have this to perfection. In the close confines of the Donmar everything is visible to the audience and there is nowhere to hide. Some reviewers have been uncomfortable with the violence but for me it was a legitimate counterpoint to the passion. That at any rate was surely what Noel Coward intended.
The Donmar is a wonderful venue and the play is cleverly staged both on the hotel balconies of the First Act and in the Paris apartment subsequently. “Private Lives” always entertains but in Michael Longhurst’s courageous direction it does more. As they creep out together at the end surely Elyot and Amanda will have learned that they need more than Solomon Isaacs to make it work the second time around.