By Ben Clark
Oscar Wilde described The Importance of Being Earnest as, “a trivial comedy for serious people.” It’s a description that could just as easily be applied to Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which is currently showing at the Gala Theatre, Durham. With Jack Hardwick playing Elyot, this revival of Coward’s classic comedy of manners subtly highlights its trenchant critique of social class and its portrayal of love as a violent, unmannerly passion.
The premise of Private Lives is simple. Elyot and Amanda are separated and have found new partners, named Sibyl and Victor. Both are on honeymoon with their respective lovers. Only, as luck would have it, they’ve ended up next door to one another in the same hotel.
Comedy was created instantly through the conversations had by Elyot and Sibyl, on one side of the stage, and Victor and Amanda on the other. Olivia Beardsley as Sibyl ramped up her nervous, vacillating side by constantly playing with her hands, and Hardwick’s Elyot was stony-faced and deliberate in contrast. First, Sibyl quizzed Elyot about his previous relationship with Amanda. This conversation was then mirrored on the other side of the stage by Victor questioning Amanda about her marriage with Elyot. Both Hardwick’s Elyot and Helen Keeley’s Amanda showed considerable irritation at this line of interrogation. Kieran Buckeridge’s Victor and Beardsley’s Sibyl did an excellent job at acting a wheedling role: both clearly felt insecure and suspicious.
Cue Elyot and Amanda laying eyes on each other. In another comically mirrored scene, Elyot tries to convince Sibyl to leave with him. Amanda does the same with Victor. The hilarity of the scene was sharpened by the symmetry of the set at the Gala; both balconies featured identical baby blue doors and garden chairs, with a line of perfectly positioned vases separating the two in the very middle of the stage. The similarity of the balconies echoed the similarity of the two couples, and also made Sibyl and Victor’s refusal to leave the hotel even more laughable. One after the other they both flounced off, leaving Elyot and Amanda alone on their neighbouring balconies.
The sexual tension between Hardwick’s Elyot and Keeley’s Amanda was almost instantaneously visible. What was most impressive was the way they continued to behave in such a similar way—arch, mocking, bantering—but with an undertone of respect, of engaging with each other as intellectual equals. First Amanda, then Elyot, melted completely and professed their love for one another. It was made abundantly clear that the rather false, well-mannered selves they had adopted around Victor and Sibyl were entirely manufactured. By stressing this point, the cast hammered home the message of Coward’s play, (incidentally, the same message of any comedy of manners), which is that manners are fundamentally dishonest. The implication is that our true selves—whatever they may be—feel strongly, with a depth of passion that goes far beyond the reserved, trivial outer selves we present to society.
This message may seem trite to a modern audience—most of us consider ourselves slightly less stuffy than the social elite of the Roaring Twenties—and I did feel slightly underwhelmed as I came out of the theatre. The play’s denouement seemed a little too obvious, a little too forced. Perhaps Keeley and Hardwick as Amanda and Elyot shot themselves in the foot by being too convincing in their quarrelling during Acts 2 and 3: one felt that there was unresolved tension that hadn’t been cleared up when the curtain dropped. Or perhaps it was the getting-together of Victor and Sibyl that felt unsatisfactory.
Having said that, the play couldn’t really end any other way: it was so well-balanced, so carefully poised throughout that a neat resolution was all but required. From cocktail glasses to chairs, there was a numerical precision in everything that the London Classic Theatre company did: even the dialogue had a meticulousness reminiscent of Wilde:
Elyot: “It doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous”
Amanda: “It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous”.
Coward’s comedy of manners is exemplary of its genre and, though we might wish for something a little weightier, it has to be conceded that this play does not pretend to be anything more than it is. And in its execution, this reviewer can have no complaints.
Photograph: Sheila Burnett