14 April 2023
PRIVATE LIVES (Donmar Warehouse Theatre) Review

I first saw “Private Lives” in 2013 at the Gielgud Theatre starring Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens (directed by Jonathan Kent).  The review of that production isn’t here, but I remember thinking how perfectly Chancellor captured Amanda, or, rather, how I would envision Amanda given the text, but Stephens wasn’t quite the Elyot I wanted him to be.

In this production, directed by Michael Longhurst, it’s the opposite:  Stephen Mangan’s is every bit as suave and charming yet volatile as can be.  Rachael Stirling’s Amanda, however, is more of a spoiled socialite than a tempestuous force not to be trifled with.  All the same, they are both fantastic in the first act, as are Laura Carmichael and Sargon Yelda (both of whom I’d seen on stage before) as their respective spouses.

The chemistry among the characters is played out very well:  both Mangan/Carmichael and Stirling/Yelda are very believable, yet we are still rooting for Mangan and Stirling to end up together happily ever after.  The two bounce off one another’s energy as they exchange witty quips, Coward’s humour really shines here.

Once we get to the Parisian flat scene, however, Coward’s wit is almost entirely squashed by the heaviness with which Longhurst pushes the voilence angle.  Having Elyot drag Amanda across the room by her hair is never going to do anything except provoke outrage, which this play doesn’t call for.  It genuinely felt as though Longhurst was trying to forcibly drag the play into some kind of a contemporary conversation about domestic abuse, except why bother turning this play into something it isn’t and robbing it of its cleverness in the process?  This is a play about two people who can live neither with nor without one another; shouldn’t it be enough?

Hildegard Bechtler, whose sets I often like (HansardAntony and Cleopatra, Old Times, and The Master Builder, to name a few) did wonderfully with both the balconies and the flat in terms of luscious surroundings and clean sightlines, but the flat “cover” in the first act feels like a missed opportunity.  The set for the flat of the second act is already present underneath the balconies in the first, so it’s covered by a gray sheet, making it looks like a stately home shut for the season.  Given that the characters stand on the balcony and marvel at the sea and yachts beneath, wouldn’t it have been nice to have a blue cover and maybe project some waves onto it instead for a bit of extra ambiance?

Having Stephen Mangan play piano and sing was a special treat.  Maybe Donmar should do a special event:  Mangan dressed as Elyot plays and sings the songs of the 1920s-30s.  I’d totally pay to see that.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8.

P.S.: There have been several revivals I’d missed over the years and am kicking myself over, most notably Howard Davies’ direction of Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan and Richard Eyre’s direction of Matthew Macfadyen and Kim Cattrall.  Doh!

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