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Must-See Theatre: Private Lives

Samantha Lee
Samantha Lee

Private Lives is one of those plays you leave feeling considerably more cynical yet somehow much more hopeful about love. Plus your face kind of hurts from laughing so hard.

Private Lives is (saving Much Ado About Nothing) the original rom-com. It follows Amanda and Victor, who have just gotten hitched, and Sibyl and Elyot, who also happen to have just tied the knot. They are honeymooning in the same place and the theory is, it’s all idyllic and romantic and perfect for each couple. Except that Amanda and Elyot have spotted each other...and Amanda and Elyot used to be married.

Cue chaos.

They might have convinced themselves and their respective partners that they hate each other, but Amanda and Elyot have that kind of desperate, rollercoaster, extreme love that most of us swear we wish we never had and still secretly harbour in the back of our minds as a what if...? It’s obvious from the get-go that poor Victor and Sibyl have their work cut out for them just trying to measure up to the mere ghosts of Amanda and Elyot, and in this you get some hilarious, insecure-but-pretending-not-to-be moments.

In fact, this is probably where I was surprised the most as having read the play Amanda and Elyot leap off the page as fiery, witty, and sarcastic by turns, and Sibyl and Victor come across as fade-into-the-background characters – there as mere foils for the leads. Not so for this production.

Sophie Henderson as Sibyl and Sam Snedden as Victor almost take the play and run away with it at times – they are hilarious, pathetic and intensely human by turns as the “dumpees”  and I highly recommend you go purely to watch these two individuals move back and forth from breaking point while attempting to maintain a semblance of civility.

Noël Coward’s writing is that of a romantic cynic, and it comes across in some of the brilliant lines: “What should we do if they walk in on us?” “Behave exquisitely.” And yet although the (gorgeous) modern set, (gorgeous) ultra-stylish clothing, and (gorgeous) music choices are meant to make it all seem very materialistic and glossy and encourage you to not to look too deeply past the veneer, please, there’s still very much a heart to the play underneath all the calculated world-weary sophistication.

Private Lives was first performed in 1930, and the words still have just as much relevance today. It’s nice to see a few revisions to the dialogue have been made to reflect the times (texting, for example) and the place performed (a reference to Kumeu made in the same vein as one might reference Hamilton.) The modern choices in music are great, especially "Amanda and Elyot's" song, and are used deliberately by the characters both to needle and reconcile with each other, which was a nice touch. Rachael Walker and Charlotte Rust did a great job on design - the sophistication is sharp and obvious - but isn't overpowing.

The point isn’t lost. People are still cynical. They still get married for the wrong reasons, end up with the wrong person. They still hurt each other deeply. They still love each other desperately, sometimes for reasons unknown to anyone - least of all the couple in question.

Mia Blake as Amanda and Matt Whelan as Elyot are a pleasure to watch. They snark and snipe at each other and thirty second later profess undying love for each other so often and so effortlessly it hooks you straight away and keeps you hooked until the end.

Matt Whelan’s Elyot has studied indifference in spades, as well as an acerbic wit and occasionally, a fantastic sense of a man trying desperately to regain his footing after Amanda has yanked the rug out from underneath him yet again. I love that that Amanda and Elyot know each other so well and yet not at all – it means as an audience member you’re constantly wondering what is going to happen next.

Mia Blake as Amanda is all slinky sophistication – she can wind Victor around her little finger and she’s used to getting her own way. You get the sense that she really doesn’t understand her own attraction to Elyot – but he challenges her, and keeps her off balance – I like that you see this in the way Blake moves. Amanda’s battles of wit with Elyot are absolutely the key focus of the play and you won’t be disappointed that this culminates in a nicely choreographed showdown.  Spoiler – this does involve some ice that might be better dumped on the floor in smaller amounts – the actors almost tripped over it a couple of times, and while nicely covered over by a “Damn this ice” from Blake you do spend a few moments worrying they’re going to break their necks rather than focussing on the action.

This play pointedly and unapologetically skims the surface – it’s a rom com (and a Noël Coward play) don’t expect too many blatantly obvious deep and meaningful, this-is-the-meaning-of-life moments here. However, it should be noted that there are times when the actors convey in a slow dance or a quick, unguarded moment or sentence, just how deeply Amanda and Elyot care for one another. This really sold the whole play for me and is the reason, along with the wonderfully acted dialogue under Shane Bosher's direction, that I’m recommending this as a must-see.

Silo Theatre’s Private Lives  is running at Q Theatre only until the 29th of September – go and see it.

What: Private Lives

Where:  Q Theatre, Auckland

When: Until 29th September 2012

Tickets: $25-$55

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