Review: "Private Lives" at Stratford Festival

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Stratford, ON - Did it ever pay in spades to read Director Carey Perloff’s Notes in the Programme. I found they had established important context for me for this ‘Private Lives’ that I probably would not have gathered if I had just sat down to watch the production.

Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ is a quintessential comedy of manners with an interesting visionary note from Ms. Perloff that I hadn’t considered before: “The characters have no defined professions and no clear direction in life, they careen around in a kind of no man’s land looking for guideposts around which to orient their behaviour.” But they certainly looked mahvelous (to coin a word from long ago) thanks to Christina Poddubiuk’s gorgeous costume designs. Ms. Perloff describes Ken MacDonald’s set design as a ‘paper cut-out fantasy world’. And this is where the director’s notes helped me to understand the play even further.

These five characters resemble cut out, paper doll looking people whose behaviour reflected what life was like in the 1930s – incredible speed in trying to catch up to the times and living life to its fullest in an everchanging world without a care after the war that was to have ended all wars. Therefore, the set doesn’t have to look realistic as it’s a fantasy world in which the audience enters for two hours and fifteen minutes. It made incredible sense to me in this case

Divorced couple Elyot Chase (Geraint Wyn-Davies) and Amanda Prynne (Lucy Peacock) have remarried and are honeymooning now with their new spouses, Sibyl Chase (Sophia Walker) and Victor Prynne (Mike Shara). Much to Elyot and Amanda’s surprise, their rooms are adjacent to each other. Throughout the course of the first act, Elyot and Amanda learn there are still hidden feelings for each other and the humour stems from them in wondering how they are going to get back together and leave their current spouses behind. From this point on, confusion reigns supreme.

What worked extremely well at this matinee performance was the four actors’ adroit handling of the sweetly, delicious banter and repartee combined with just the right amount of silence to heighten interest in what is about to happen next. Mr. Wyn-Davies is a charmingly stuffy and condescending Elyot who most assuredly deserves the swipes and quips thrown at him by an equally illustrious self-centred Amanda, beautifully portrayed by Lucy Peacock.  

As Elyot’s new wife Sibyl, Sophia Walker captures a petulant, insecure new bride who keeps wanting to know more about her husband’s first marriage and why it did not work. Sibyl desperately clings to Elyot in order to secure some identity herself.  Mike Shara is a handsomely, boy toyish new husband to Amanda who delights in sparring with her about the violence that Elyot had inflicted on her during the first marriage.

I was also surprised at how appropriate ‘Private Lives’ still resonates with and for a twenty first century audience. Yes, it is humourous to watch the pratfalls, double takes and stealthy walks of the characters, but this production moves further beyond this surface level treatment. If anything, this ‘Private Lives’ provides a significant commentary then and now about the state of love between two people. 

Love is often violent at times as is demonstrated in the second act in Amanda’s Paris apartment where she and Elyot get into a knockdown sparring of words and fists. Love, at times and sadly, is interchangeable in wondering if the state of marriage really means anything anymore when people can just merely walk away. Most profoundly, love for director Perloff (and for Noel Coward) is exciting in that it still conceals and reveals that which ‘protects the speaker from exposure or humiliation.’

‘Private Lives’ continues to October 26 at the Avon Theatre, 99 Downie Street, Stratford, Ontario.  For tickets, please call 1-800- 567-1600 or visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Running time:  approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one twenty minute interval.

Photo of Geraint Wyn-Davies, Mike Shara, Sophia Walker and Lucy Peacock taken by David Hou.

The Performers: Sarah Dodd, Lucy Peacock, Mike Shara, Sophia Walker, Geraint Wyn-Davies

Producer: David Auster; Director: Carey Perloff; Set Designer: Ken MacDonald; Costume Designer: Christina Poddubiuk; Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell; Sound Designer: Thomas Ryder Payne; Music Director: Laura Burton; Stage Manager: Bona Duncan;