Private Lives, Present Times: The Subtly of Noël Coward

Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College Arts, Humanities & Education at the University of Derby and an early modern military historian, reviews London Classic Theatre’s run of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. 

As Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of a College of Arts, Humanities & Education, the creative learning partnership between Derby Theatre and the University is an especial thrill. Not only does it provide boundless applied learning opportunities for our students on our creative arts degrees, the Theatre’s seasonal programmes offer a constant affirmation of the educational merits and cultural enrichment of the arts and humanities.

Of course, some plays and shows press home those merits more than others. It was, thus, with some trepidation that recently I attended the opening night at Derby Theatre of London Classic Theatre’s (LCT) run of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. As the Director, Michael Cabot acknowledged in his programme notes Coward’s reputation has waxed and waned over the years. Private Lives, in particular, has often been dismissed for irrelevance and Cabot quotes the famous New Yorker theatre critic, John Lahr, that it is a ‘plotless play for purposeless people’. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. The comedy of manners which treats the audience to the humour of the previously divorced Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne meeting on the hotel balcony during their honeymoon with their new spouses, Sibyl Chase and Victor Prynne, and running off to Paris to be together again is refreshing and genuinely funny. LCT’s cast nail the timing of Coward’s at turns waspish and louche lines. Olivia Beardlesy is wonderful as Sibyl, Elyot’s younger, vacuous and shrill new wife while Helen Keeley offers subtle insight into the insecurities of Amanda beneath her hard-boiled independent front. Similarly Gareth Bennett-Ryan and Paul Sandys accurately portray the opposites of the self-indulgent, borderline disreputable, Elyot, and the dull ‘Everyman’, Victor. For these performances and the humour, LCT’s Private Lives repays the audience.

Time and context of the play

Yet, it is the time and context of the play which offers more for the here and now. Set in the 1930s, Elyot and Amanda rekindle their tempestuous relationship, where it is quickly clear that they neither can bear to be apart nor together, against the backdrop of an uncertain world. America’s Great Depression was infecting the European economies, while the dark clouds of extreme nationalism was beginning to make ground in Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. This history frames Elyot and Amanda’s decision to live in, and for, the moment by abandoning their new spouses and holing up in Amanda’s Parisian flat to eat, drink, make love and, of course, fight. In Amanda’s and Elyot’s conduct is Coward’s existential question for us all: why not reach for the instant gratification, even if morally ambiguous?

How does this link to the here and now?

It is a question which can be readily posed in 2018. Recent times have thrown up much political, economic and social uncertainty, with the centre ground increasingly giving way to the extremes, that it is surely tempting to answer Coward with, ‘why not, indeed’.

Rightly drama never lends itself to a straightforward answer, however. Act 3 of Private Lives sees Sibyl and Victor arrive at the Paris flat to confront the once more estranged Amanda and Elyot only to end up fighting passionately, falling into an embrace while Elyot and Amanda, again reconciled, slip off.   Coward’s answer to his question then is that Amanda and Elyot should not be condemned for being indulgent: that is too simplistic.  Our ‘private lives’ and their motivations are complex, variously rational and irrational and both located in the wider environment and innate to the human condition.

This denouement of Private Lives is simultaneously comforting and unsettling. Decisions in our private lives cannot and need not be explained and yet surely we have a responsibility to account for our behaviour? I shouldn’t have been sceptical prior to curtain up. This performance of Coward’s Private Lives conveyed all the benefits of theatre and the arts and humanities disciplines: provocative, critically engaged, educational and thoroughly enriching. And it was performed at Derby Theatre, our local learning theatre with which the University community has a deep relationship. How good is that?

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