Have you ever seen more believable soulmates than Amanda and Elyot in Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy? Having followed fatefully similar paths since their divorce, right down to their choice of new lovers (who both obsess constantly over past spouses) and their favoured honeymoon destination (the same French hotel, actually with adjoining rooms), they seem destined to be reunited when they re-encounter one another at last.
Where other revivals might play this coincidental meeting as absurd, director Patrick Mason’s earnest production recognises it as a hopeful do-over of a ferocious marriage. Yes, in the company of their new partners, Elyot (Shane O’Reilly) quickly lets slip his arrogance and Amanda (Rebecca O’Mara) her self-fascination, but, under the sorcerous influence of an old song, both figures relax into aching pictures of nostalgia. What, we wonder, has been lost? What have they thrown away?
Their discovery of each other on the hotel balcony, nicely confined downstage in Mason’s direction, allows O’Mara and O’Reilly’s faces to flash between desire and dismay. The latter wins (briefly) and both conspire to go their separate ways. Elyot tries to convince his prissy wife Sibyl (Lorna Quinn) that he’s received an omen from the spirit world, and Amanda invents an overwhelming memory of a dead sister. Her husband Victor (Peter Gaynor), however, is wiser than anyone: “There’s something behind all of this.”
As the title suggests, Coward’s comedy of manners presents only the surfaces of things; getting underneath it is hard work. After both new marriages unravel and Elyot and Amanda eventually escape to a Parisian apartment, differences between these old lovers begin to come into focus. O’Reilly’s Elyot, bolt upright in self-importance and easily irritable, preaches a lifestyle of hedonism, much to the suspicion of O’Mara’s spry Amanda. Mason’s direction opens up the stage for a sprawling routine of affections and arguments until fists, and vinyl, start to fly.
It’s easiest, in Coward’s play, for people to remember fonder details of past relationships; greater stakes lie in facing their inability to change. We don’t quite get the punch we need from O’Mara’s Amanda when she insists to Victor, “I really tried to love you.” But he does receive the greatest sting of all from Elyot: “You’re all fuss and fume, one of those cotton-wool Englishmen.” Gaynor sensitively brings Victor to a halt, obsolete and unfashionable.
The genius last laugh comes at our expense, however, or at least at the expense of those of us moralist enough to try to disentangle this spider’s web of heated passion. With Sybil and Victor distracted by such an exercise, Amanda and Elyot cheekily retreat offstage (and into our imaginations).
Maybe things will be different next time.
Private Lives is at Dublin’s Gate Theatre until June 24th. For more details, click here.
Review: Private Lives at the Gate Theatre, Dublin Show Info
Directed by Patrick Mason
Written by Noël Coward
Cast includes Rebecca O'Mara, Shane O'Reilly, Lorna Quinn, Peter Gaynor
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