Private Lives: Degrees of separation

By Dionne Christian

Silo Theatre's staging of Noel Coward's Private Lives brings the withering satire of love, marriage and divorce into the modern age. Dionne Christian reports.

The cast of Private Lives, (from left) Sam Snedden, Sophie Henderson, Matt Whelan and Mia Blake. Photo / Supplied
The cast of Private Lives, (from left) Sam Snedden, Sophie Henderson, Matt Whelan and Mia Blake. Photo / Supplied

Shane Bosher acknowledges some may think Silo Theatre, where he is artistic director, has "jumped the shark" with its fourth production of the year. In his never-ending pursuit of a provocative "excavated classic", Bosher has put Noel Coward's Private Lives on the programme.

Deliciously funny, witty and quintessentially English are all apt descriptions for the flamboyant Coward's plays, but in more recent times - in New Zealand, at least - his work has seldom been performed by professional companies, although Auckland Theatre Company staged a well received version of Design for Living in 2008.

Coward's plays have, says Bosher, become the domain of community theatres probably because they're funny, accessible and he is, nearly 40 years after his death, still a big name whose influence on popular culture should never be underestimated. Though there have been some fine amateur productions, there exists a belief that the plays are dated, the characters caricatures and the themes irrelevant.

But Silo may be tapping into the zeitgeist yet again. In London, Coward's play Volcano, considered too risque to be performed in his lifetime, has debuted on the West End with Jenny Seagrove in the leading role. In October, the Birmingham Royal Ballet performs Broadway choreographer Joe Layton's homage to the celebrities of the 1920s with Coward's music taking centre stage.

Across the Atlantic, Coward has been very much the thing in New York where a festival celebrating his life and work has run throughout this year. An exhibition at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts has been twice extended, such has been the demand.

Given this, the timing for Silo's take on Coward's 1930 Private Lives couldn't be more fitting. "It's really the only Coward play we would consider," says Bosher, who describes it as one of the world's great stage comedies, "because of the relationship between the two leading characters and what it has to say about relationships today. The play is strikingly modern and so funny whereas a lot of his other plays, I feel, do exist within a time and place of definite cultural specificity."

Private Lives was nearly too ahead of its time. A love scene in the second act was considered so "inappropriate" that the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Cromer, who had responsibility for theatre censorship, tried to ban it. Coward went to St James's Palace himself to plead his case.

It has often been described as the original love-to-hate-you romantic comedy. Amanda (Mia Blake) and Elyot (Matt Whelan), who used to be married to each other, head off on honeymoons with their new spouses - unaware Elyot's ex is also along for the ride. Their newlywed marital bliss is made miserable by the curiosity of Amanda's new husband Victor (Sam Snedden) and Elyot's new wife Sybil (Sophie Henderson), who want to know more about their failed marriages. Though Amanda and Elyot are supposed to be happily divorced, they are about to discover the intoxicating power of a rekindled relationship.

There won't be a smoking jacket or dry martini in sight. Stylist Charlotte Rust brings an ultra-chic touch to the costumes and the action takes place in the Pacific region. Rather than delivering the withering putdowns and lacerating one-liners in plumby English, it will be spoken with New Zealand accents.

Whelan, who was scheduled to appear in Silo's Tribes earlier this year but had to pull out due to television and film commitments, says it's tempting to slip into an English or American accent.

"But it doesn't matter what accent you say the lines in, they are still very, very funny."

Whelan last performed with Silo in 2009's Holding the Man, which Bosher directed, and says he enjoyed it so much, he was keen to return to "play with" the company again. Though Private Lives might be a delightfully wicked comedy, the rehearsal period is rigorous with Whelan and the rest of the cast urged to look below the surface of the lines.

"It's all about SNET," says Whelan, "subtext, naturalism, energy and turning on a dime. You can't ever drop the ball; it's about being present all the time and really participating in the conversations. The temptation is just to laugh and joke, but there's more going on in this play."

He and Mia Blake, who plays the acerbic Amanda, have not worked together before, but Bosher was sure the two raven-haired actors would have the right chemistry for the roles. He says Private Lives lives or dies on the relationship between the two leads, but, just as importantly, their cuckolded spouses have to be credible.

Sophie Henderson, who plays Elyot's doomed second wife Sybil, describes her as sweet and a little naive, the very opposite of Elyot's former wife, Amanda.

Bosher says he worried initially Sybil was a little too like the ambitious blondes Henderson has portrayed previously in Silo productions, but the more he considered the character, the more he realised Sybil is very different.

"I can see why some people might find Sybil annoying, but she certainly doesn't deserve what happens to her," says Henderson. "She and Elyot are clearly not suited, but obviously he and Amanda have gone out of their way to choose new spouses the exact opposite of those they had before."

What: Private Lives
Where & when: Q Theatre, September 6-29

-TimeOut

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