So I read Private Lives by Noel Coward. It was everything I thought I might be. And less.
(Reading Plays Series #2)
I chose to read it because it appeared on a jolly lovely list of ‘plays that actors should read‘, an achingly familiar gathering of the usual suspects, some of which I’ve read, some I’ve seen, some I’ve studied, some I could simply run a mile from. I chose the Coward play because I don’t make a demmed habit of reading comedies. I’m such a snob. But I thought, oh, alright—get on with it— it’s on the list, let’s give it a shot. Plus, it’s freely available online—it was penned in 1930 and has fallen out of copyright. I’m such a cheap snob.
I also chose to view a production of the play through a marvellous (and also marvellously flawed) app called Digital Theatre. If you’ve got a bit of patience and a desire to see a well-filmed play, Digital Theatre is a fair choice. For a reasonably small fee, you can access a library of performances from some of the UK’s best theatre companies. The library is disappointingly small, and has been for years, as I imagine there is a great deal palaver involved in filming such performances well, not to mention the expense. It would seem they don’t post new additions eagerly. If you do trundle over to join Digital Theatre, be prepared for a bit of mucking about, irritating pop-up action and general shemozzle. Plus, the downloads never stream seamlessly for me, and the tiny wheel of death threatens intermittently, although that is more to do with my internet connection than anything else.
My verdict on the play remains unsure. I liked the fact it was a vintage play that is still performed today. Something must be said for its enduring appeal. It is very witty. A comedy of manners—that is one that treats a certain set of social manners satirically, but let’s be honest the idea of a ‘comedy of manners’ rarely refers to anything other than a play that takes the mickey out of aristocratic social mores. And Private Lives does take the mickey, a great deal of it.
Certainly, the script is high camp. I would like to see a version of it performed where the characters are gender fluid—gay, bi, lesbian or transgender or a delightful combination of all. That would bring a whole new edge to the themes of fidelity, marriage, gender equality and free love.
The digital performance I watched was surprisingly dull and irritating. Elliot was played by an actor who could find no other note than that of a perfectly beastly fop—act better, you, you, you highly paid professional! The audience watching it seemed to be thinking similar thoughts—hardly a giggle out of them for over 90 minutes. Too shrill, too crafted, no guts and terror, which is what the passion is all about.
Now the script. What did I learn? I learnt that a play with a single thing to say can say it over and over again as long as it is witty about it. Noel Coward himself did think he had written a play about no great thing in particular, and accusations of it being “a thin play” I think are well-founded. It’s a laugh and very little else.
I did enjoy the good symmetry of (most)of the play. There were a couple of glaring strangely broken ideas lying around—like that French maid. Just a complete non sequitur and utterly not needed.
But I also felt it was shocking in its violence and casual callousness. That in itself said volumes about the nature of relationships, although I think Mr.Coward would vehemently deny any intention to create a meaningful expression of modern love. I think all he was saying was ‘Oh, love is funny, isn’t it? Love is never enough until we get too much.’