Gosh, darling: the Donmar has done something dreadfully beastly to one of Noel Coward’s most classic plays. Private Lives is now nearly a century old, and Michael Longhurst’s revival – marking 50 years since the playwright’s death – seems to regard it as a museum piece from the start. For much of the first act, half of the set is covered in dust sheets, as though it were an abandoned stately home. But the production’s preoccupation with how the play might now be considered problematic makes for a strange, unsatisfying evening.
Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling play Elyot and Amanda, the warring divorcees who accidentally end up honeymooning at the same hotel with their new respective spouses. An exasperated Elyot insists that he hates Amanda to his new wife Sibyl (Laura Carmichael); to new beau Victor (Sargon Yelda), Amanda declares her ex to be “a dreary subject for a honeymoon”. Except, of course, they are both in deep denial, walking disasters who are drawn to each other like magnets.
Here, humour is largely out in favour of darkness. Longhurst takes Coward’s comic play about dysfunctional people and brings the lurking theme of domestic violence to the fore, with scenes often breaking out into febrile moments of physical fights. The script, played neither sexily nor for that many laughs, requires a kind of studied naturalism from the acting. As Amanda, Stirling floats through the script with an arch, witty disdain, but Mangan’s Elyot is like a grouchy Maxim de Winter, often appearing to be suppressing his own comic instincts. The best moments feature the pair together, once they have done a bunk and gone to Paris to rekindle their relationship. Smoking, drinking, dancing and wearing silk pyjamas, they are soaked in bitterness, careering from passion to warfare in an instant. Carmichael and Yelda’s characters, meanwhile, feel like an afterthought – as does a final moment of menace between them.
Coward’s writing should glide, but here the abrupt, stark changes of tone lurch like a tanker. Giddy repartee judders into the kind of lugubriousness you’d expect in a kitchen sink drama. Yes, some of the lines feel icky and unfunny now – “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs” – but this production seems to frowningly underline each of them in heavy pen. It’s an intervention that seems facile; these characters aren’t meant to be paragons of virtue. Amanda and Elyot are two people drawn to one another, who seem destined to hurt one another, walking a fine tightrope between love and hate, desire and repulsion. Surely the dangers of that can speak for themselves without a soundtrack of foreboding string music.
There may be contemporary challenges in this play, but an apparent fear of being seen to endorse the characters’ behaviour prevents a smarter or more innovative exploration of its complexities. I couldn’t help thinking of Matthew Warchus’s divine revival of Present Laughter at the Old Vic in 2019, which subtly brought out the play’s queer subtext while playing to the strengths of its finely crafted humour. Instead, this Private Lives is a bizarrely tense revival that doesn’t seem to trust the writing – or find anything revelatory in it.
‘Private Lives’ runs at Donmar Warehouse until 27 May