Michael Longhurst – departing as the Donmar’s artistic director next February after a five-year stint – has thus far made his biggest splash at the National, with a 2016 revival of Amadeus that incorporated the Southbank Sinfonia, enabling us to see, and hear, Peter Shaffer’s familiar classic afresh.
He initially seems to be doing something in a similar creative key with his staging of Private Lives (1930), which helps to mark the 50th anniversary of Noël Coward’s death. He employs a cellist and violinist to waft romantic strains from the sidelines and introduce notes of discord to accompany the resumed witty wrangling of those accidentally reunited divorcees, Elyot and Amanda – played here by Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling.
So far, so genteel. But another aspect to the production is more the stuff of shockwaves. The climactic Act II set-to between the pair, whose lovey-dovey amity after abandoning their respective newlyweds on the first night of their honeymoons turns sour in their Parisian hideaway, isn’t the usual cartoonish ding-dong, with cushions flying and no harm done.
Instead it escalates into a distressing sequence of domestic violence that leaves you staggering to the interval feeling pummelled. With the aid of a fight-director, Longhurst intensifies the scripted scrap, with Elyot shoving, hair-pulling and near-throttling Amanda (she for her part savagely biting him).
He can, of course, point to Coward’s cues and textual clues as rationale. But it’s as if he’s shattering any accrued complacency about what’s at stake. Stirling’s Amanda flinches and cowers, tremblingly vowing to leave Elyot – and we glimpse a traumatic cycle of devotion, dependence and danger.
For some, this emphasis will overturn the evergreen comedy’s entertainment value to the point of travesty. But it’s a valid provocation – mirth isn’t banished, it just now has more edge. The strained return to decorum in Act III is felt on our pulses too. Elyot’s quip – “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs” – usually an invitation to risqué laughs, induces real shudders. Coward had a talent to amuse – this argues that he could anatomise abuse.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set isn’t all that easy on the eye or the actors – the blissful opening balcony scene gets conducted over a distracting covered mass of furniture that will stand revealed as the Parisian love nest. The central quartet, though (completed by Laura Carmichael and Sargon Yelda as the spurned spouses Sibyl and Victor), seem almost divinely inspired in their imparting of coupledom’s hellish aspects.
Stirling gives us a beguiling force of nature whose self-possession isn’t enough to see off the restrictive expectations of her age. Mangan roguishly charms and drolly delights, but he’s pricklier and edgier than any Elyot I can recall – a powder-keg of emotion lying beneath that smiling, silk-dressing-gowned exterior.
Until May 27. Tickets: 020 3282 3808; donmarwarehouse.com