Love can make you crazy funny. Angry funny. Sexy funny. Foolish funny.
Tossing off Noel Coward’s loving quips and barbs by the minute, the 2019 Stratford Festival’s production of Private Lives hits all those hilarious and hurtful heights and more. The 1930 comedy of manners classic opened on Thursday, May 30, at the Avon Theatre.
With director Carey Perloff pushing the jest tempo all the way up, a terrific quartet — Lucy Peacock as Amanda Prynne, Geraint Wyn Davies as Elyot Chase, Mike Shara as Victor Prynne and Sophia Walker as Sybil Chase — do right by Coward’s quips.
Peacock’s Amanda and Wyn Davies’ Elyot are a divorced couple, who split because of their furious rows.
After five years far apart, they have found new loves (or at least willing matrimonial partners) — and then meet in a delightful Cowardly coincidence while honeymooning in Normandy with their present spouses (Shara and Walker).
Perloff has Peacock and Wyn Davies at full throttle as it becomes clear — in parallel scenes — that their new spouses don’t excite them much. Coward’s witty words are neatly punctuated by their tepid kisses.
Inevitably, Amanda and Elyot discover each other on adjoining balconies. Amanda tries to play it cool, while Elyot skitters away.
Just as inevitably — because Private Lives is where those romcom cliches come from — the two discover they never stopped loving each other.
Peacock and Wyn Davies excel at desperate, serious and wistful moments like these:
“AMANDA: The whole business was too much for us.
ELYOT: We were so ridiculously over in love.
AMANDA: Funny, wasn’t it?
ELYOT [sadly]: Horribly funny.
AMANDA: Selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy. All those qualities came out in us just because we loved each other.”
Which in turn, make the madcap hilarity of their inevitable reunion and subsequent fling at Amanda’s Paris apartment even funnier ….
“ELYOT: You’ll dance it with me I hope?
AMANDA [rising]: I shall be charmed.
ELYOT [as they dance]: Quite a good floor, isn’t it?
AMANDA: Yes, I think it needs a little Borax.
ELYOT: I love Borax.”
That exchange may read a little blandly. Not in Perloff’s take on Coward.
This version erupts as Wyn Davies goes over the top in screaming “I LOVE BORAX!!!!” — and on opening night Peacock was laughing so hard, she looked as if she might fall on that dance floor.
When Walker and Shara’s characters catch up with them, the comic duets become a quartet of merry mayhem. Walker can produce wild wails with ease. Shara is perfect as a stuffed shirt. Yep. You guessed it. Sparks fly.
As Peacock and Wyn Davies look on with increasing amusement, it becomes apparent that they are not the only twosome in the room who find witty rows the prelude to romance.
Spoiler alert. Private Lives is so funny that you will laugh from the first scene. You won’t stop until the action fades out on the last embrace.
As Amanda’s maid, Sarah Dodd must survive exposure to this mad quartet. She is forced to use baguettes to fend them off and still winds up with a bandaged nose.
Carey Perloff has treated Coward’s mentions of Elyot’s physical violence (in the past) seriously while allowing us to laugh at the 78 rpm disc smashing, pillow tossing and face slapping (but of course this is not acceptable today.)
One of the most beautiful moments has Geraint Wyn Davies at the piano with Lucy Peacock, serenading each other in the apartment. Sublime. Is he really playing? It looks and sounds like it. Bravo either way.
Applause: I tend to ignore the importance of the non-acting aspect of great theatre. To help fix that, this truth: Elegant and sophisticated work by Set Designer Ken MacDonald and Costume Designer Christina Poddubiuk contribute mightily to the excellence of the play.
You want to see Private Lives because…
Carey Perloff knows how to make you laugh while reflecting on the Pinterest-esque (or Seinfeldian) angst under all that talk, talk, talk:
“At the beginning of my directing career, I had the good fortune to be in rehearsal with Harold Pinter, who took me aside one day and said, ‘If you respond so strongly to my stuff, perhaps it’s time for you to direct Noël Coward,’” says Perloff. “It has taken thirty years for me to follow his advice, but as soon as I got into the room with Coward’s forensic language and his desperate, hilarious, love-sick characters, I understood what Pinter meant. It is often assumed that Coward’s world is a kind of brittle upper-class exercise in style, but the gorgeous surface of his language belies a kind of existential and chaotic despair underneath.” — stratfordfestival.ca and programme
You won’t want to see Private Lives if…
The thought of Geraint Wyn Davies in a flowery little hat and apron or elaborate dressing gown is too much for you. Oh, get over it. Go.
Amazing to learn that Coward produced this gem in just four days while suffering from the flu in Shanghai. Luckily, he recovered.
You can find out more about dates, times, and ticket details right here at StratfordFestival.ca.
Feature photo of Geraint Wyn Davies (Elyot Chase), left, Mike Shara (Victor Prynne), Sophia Walker (Sibyl Chase) & Lucy Peacock (Amanda Prynne) by David Hou