Can’t stop the moonlight
When it comes to love it's a case of once bitten, twice shy, third time's the charm in Noël Coward's viciously delightful, “Private Lives.” Steeped in classic era, black-and-white, Hollywood movie charm, “Private Lives,” written in 1930, harkens back to an era when an on-screen sock in the eye, or a slap to the face, from either sex against the other, was perfectly acceptable. Like the 1930’s, “Private Lives’” cartoonish caricatures conceal dark and hidden depths even if, on the surface, they want to appear all charming and light. Yet while it may interrogate class, gender, and society, as well as the joys and perils of married life, “Private Lives” is first, and foremost, a comedy. A comedy that has endured for the better part of a century, has attracted some of the world’s greatest performers throughout the decades, and continues to be revived today. It’s a case of no rest for the wickedly funny in what is yet another revival, a revival overflowing with infectious laughter and irresistible charm from start to finish.
Set in France around 1930, “Private Lives” follows former married couple, Amanda and Elyot, who have unwittingly taken adjacent rooms in the same hotel where both are celebrating honeymoons with their new partners. Having been bitten hard the first time, the passionate Amanda and Elyot have opted to play it safe second time around. Opting for something a little more stable, Elyot’s new wife, the quibbling Sibyl, is an apparent paragon of boredom to tame his wild, reckless streak. Amanda’s pipe chewing husband, Victor, is a solid, dependable rock with which to tie down her wild, spirited exuberance. When old flames meet, old sparks ignite and, damned by the music and the moonlight, Elyot and Amanda flee to Paris to begin their new, old life together once more. Yet when their new partners find them, will it be third time lucky in the arms of the solid and dependable, or will it be in the arms of those who’d just as willingly slap you in the face as kiss you?
If “Private Lives’” apparently unquestioned gender violence seems dated, or even dangerous now, it needs to be remembered it’s part of a tradition where strong men and strong women were seen to go head to head in a battle of the sexes as equals. Like Gary Grant and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” or Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night,” a power struggle is taking place which highlights the dynamics of gender with relentless laughter and some crackling, sexual energy. It’s all terrifically good fun, something director Patrick Mason highlights in this exquisitely directed production, one as much aware of “Private Lives’” cartoonish potential as its cinematic quality. A production built around solid performances with Peter Gaynor as the virtuous Victor, and Lorna Quinn as the simpering Sybil, being utterly delightful. Shane O'Reilly as Elyot, and Rebecca O'Mara as Amanda, are both terrific as the power couple powerfully attracted, yet equally repulsed, loving each other with vicious put downs. Throughout, O'Mara, displaying a Rik Mayall-like physicality and comedic versatility, employs a range of cartoonish exaggerations that are utterly irresistible, against which O’Reilly masterfully responds in an utterly mesmerising battle. Esosa Ighodaro as the world-weary maid, Louise, is always engaging in a supporting role. Set and costume designs by Francis O'Connor are first rate, though what appears to be an image of Josephine Baker on the back wall behind the curtain does seem a little like overkill.
“Private Lives” is one of those plays that never goes away. Nor should it. Like “It's A Wonderful Life,” “Private Lives” is a perennial that harkens back to a more innocent time. But if it’s light, it’s never lightweight. Funny, charming and totally irresistible, “Private Lives” is an absolute joy.
“Private Lives” by Noël Coward, runs at The Gate Theatre until June 24th
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre