Private Lives at the Gielgud
Private Lives is a play with a star-studded past: Laurence Olivier was in the original 30s cast and many great actors have played with Noel Coward’s tour de force. In keeping with the play’s history, Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens are now stepping into Amanda and Elyot’s rather fancy shoes.
The play opens with Elyot (Stephens) on his honeymoon with his rather saccharine new wife, Sibyl (Anna-Louise Plowman). On their balcony, they discuss his previous marriage and Elyot seems rather unenthused about the whole affair. As the couple retires, Amanda (Chancellor) and Victor (Anthony Calf) emerge and have an almost identical conversation. Predictably, Amanda and Elyot both end up on their neighbouring balconies at the same time, in a most un-Romeo and Juliet way, and realise that they still love each other.
The set captures the simultaneous decadence and decline of the decade wonderfully. It opens with a bleached, simple stage that reflects the bland peacefulness of the protagonists’ new relationships, which then changes in the second act to a decadent, Baudelairian boudoir, reflecting the tumultuous passion of Elyot and Amanda’s relationship and echoing the contrasting connections beautifully.
The acting is superb, with no actor hitting a false note the entire evening. Toby Stephens is an uncannily good cad, all flippancy and carelessness, letting the underlying vulnerability of the character peek through at just the right moments. Anna Chancellor still manages to stand out; her work is both intelligent and incredibly free, creating an Amanda that is both entrancing and maddening, with very interesting feminist proclivities that underline the relevance of the play, even in our “modern” era. Indeed, did not Texan senator Wendy Davis just have to speak for 12 hours to block legislation by an overwhelmingly male senate that would inhibit a woman’s ability to choose what to do with her own body? Meanwhile, Elyot calls Amanda a slattern, saying that promiscuity is unbecoming for a woman but with no such reservations for a man.
Sitting in the audience as the actors rise for their final bow, one questions the belief that Coward’s play depicts a society much more constrained and regulated than ours. Private Lives humbles us and reminds us that, though society has evolved, it has also remained just the same.
Private Lives is on at the Gielgud Theatre until 21st September 2013; for further information or to book visit here.
Watch actor, Toby Stephens, speak about the production here: