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Geraint Wyn Davies and Lucy Peacock star in Noel Coward's Private Lives at Stratford.

David Hou/Handout

  • Title: Private Lives
  • Written by: Noel Coward
  • Director: Carey Perloff
  • Actors: Lucy Peacock, Geraint Wyn Davies
  • Company: The Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Avon Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 26

rating

3 out of 4 stars

Watching a Noel Coward comedy these days can feel like drinking too much champagne. It is all light and fizzy fun in the evening, but those bubbles rarely seem quite so benign the next morning.

In a new production of Coward’s Private Lives at the Stratford Festival, company veterans Geraint Wyn Davies and Lucy Peacock star as lovers Elyot and Amanda – who, as the saying that would be far too cliché for the two British sophisticates to utter goes, can’t live with and can’t live without each other.

Married for three years then divorced for five before the play begins, the pair end up honeymooning with new spouses in the south of France. In fact, they’ve booked side-by-side seaside suites, where their conventional new partners Sibyl (Sophia Walker) and Victor (Mike Shara) promise to bring them lives of peace and protection, respectively.

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Director Carey Perloff isn’t too fussed about making this seem like a realistic scenario. Her designer, Ken MacDonald, has created a set of towering white curves that look like giant paper cut-outs; we are in a creamy cloud dream of the 1930s.

The performances Perloff has elicited are refreshingly down-to-earth, however. None of that debonair posturing, the artificial old-mannered acting styles that can drag down Coward productions.

Peacock is superb as Amanda – a rich and aimless woman who nevertheless nurses a deep sadness that apparently only Elyot and his tempers can assuage. The actor’s line deliveries are fresh and funny, but there’s always a beating heart underneath.

Wyn Davies, meanwhile, isn’t afraid to play Elyot as a violent misogynist. “I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe,” he shouts at Sibyl, no Cowardian charm to couch it.

Contrary to the original script, the second-time-arounders both seem to have remarried significantly younger partners in this production before they run away and reunite – a casting choice (aided by a cut line or two) that shapes sympathies differently.

Mike Shara and Sophia Walker play the lead characters' new – and significantly younger – spouses.

David Hou/Handout

You can see how Amanda ended up with as unsuitable a new mate as Victor, who Shara plays as well-meaning but just a tad oblivious. Elyot, on the other hand, seems an even nastier creature, whose marriage to sensible Sibyl (who Walker eventually fills out beyond stereotype) was careless and cruel.

When Coward starred as Elyot in the premiere of Private Lives in 1930, he was just 30 years old; the character is described as “about 30,” while Amanda’s age is discreetly kept out of the stage directions, but was originated by his contemporary, the great Gertrude Lawrence.

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At a certain point in the comedy’s stage history, however, the lead roles in Private Lives began to be filled by older actors more often than not. Brian Bedford notably returned to Elyot over and over as he aged – first on Broadway in his early thirties, then in his forties opposite Maggie Smith in Stratford, and then again at Stratford in his sixties opposite a younger Seana McKenna.

While this may be commonplace, it has altered the DNA of Coward’s comedy, subtextually suggesting Amanda and Elyot have been married and divorced from one another several times or are stuck in some endless absurdist cycle. It makes their relationship seem archetypal rather than individual.

It also accentuates how many lines there are about aging – and the fear of aging – in the play, in between the bickering and quips, and Peacock and Wyn Davies always make the most of those opportunities for poignancy.

But the downside of such casting is that it can give a production a far-away feel – as if we are watching a decades-old revival – unless the play is given a fresh take for today. Coward may be described as a modern, status-quo-questioning writer in Perloff’s director’s note, but having taken that for granted, her too unquestioning production makes him seem regressive.

It’s hard to fully get around Private Lives’s central implication that domestic violence is part of being truly, madly, deeply in love. Elyot hit Amanda in their marriage – his famous line is: “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs” – and by the end of the second act, they’re in an all-out brawl.

Sure, Amanda hit him back and started it sometimes. I’m sure, in Coward’s mind, there was a progressive element to this dynamic, that he saw his lovers absolutely as equals. But this isn’t how the world actually works, and it’s impossible to actually perform now, which is why Peacock’s performance can stay rooted in reality, while Wyn Davies’s becomes, as it must, increasingly cartoonish to stay comedic.

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The problem is not that audiences will walk out suddenly thinking it’s okay for men to hit their female partners, but that the relationship at the centre of the show now seems imbalanced or broken somehow, or just not as advertised when you think about it. Maybe a production of Private Lives that gave it a true, new life would leave less of a hangover.

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