For his last season in charge of the venue, director Michael Longhurst presents a radical revival of Noël Coward’s classic play. This Private Lives is exciting and troubled – fitting attributes for Longhurst’s superb time at The Donmar, which has struggled with the problems of Covid-19 and funding.
It is hard not to have expectations about a Noël Coward play – part of the playwright’s genius was to present the seemingly superficial. Longhurst understands this dynamic. His production shows divorcees Elyot and Amanda (reunited while on honeymoon with other people) as far more than frothy.
There are still plenty of laughs in the comedy. But a serious edge comes from Longhurst’s intolerance of Elyot’s domestic violence. The focus comes from the text – Coward is also appalled that Amanda is hit by Elyot – but the action is truly shocking (Kate Waters’ work as fight coordinator is some of the best I’ve seen). And the violence fits with an air of disconnection and desperation that could be described as existential: Amanda talks of her “jagged sophistication”, Elyot says that he is “lost” and troubled by modern life.
Two strong leads – Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling – play an important part in the success of the production. Neither is intimidated by the show’s history. Stirling’s Amanda can hold her own in any situation but is surprisingly vulnerable. Mangan’s performance is a revelation, his Elyot a nasty piece of work, however charming. You can tell how good both performers are when they aren’t speaking that sparkling dialogue. Full of passion and intimacy, this couple can communicate without the words an audience usually goes to a Coward play for.
Running away from their new marriages is surely unforgivable – no matter how dysfunctional and unhappy their rekindled love affair will be. Here, Laura Carmichael and Sargon Yelda, who take the parts of new spouses Sibyl and Victor, make their smaller roles a big part of the show. There are laughs from how out of their depth both characters are, but the slow realisation of what Elyot and Amanda are really like adds considerable tension.
Might you still feel sorry for Elyot and Amanda? They “pity the philosophers” who want to try and explain their passion. But is there a design for living here? Or are the couple just like children? There’s plenty to suggest infantilism, including temper tantrums that must be tactically controlled. But Longhurst is harsh and has no time for excuses. The violence in the show feeds on itself and brings further shocks with the finale. Complete with discordant strings, a sudden argument between Sibyl and Victor might even end in murder. Not what you expected – and all the better for seeing these lives out in the open.
Here’s an example of a good play made great by a lead performance. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 1992 piece, about an older woman who is said to have chosen a career in academia over her family, is proficient: the dialogue is strong and debating points clear. But this traditional piece, with its dinner party scenario, influenced by Chekhov and Ibsen, really scores high because the legendary Stockard Channing takes the role of its heroine, Kristin Miller.
As Kristin’s family assemble for a birthday dinner – one it is all too obvious will be a disaster – a history of emotional hunger is combined with delicious humour. The lines are good… but Channing makes them land with magnificently understated sarcasm. She gets laughs from monosyllabic answers and even raised eyebrows. Director Jamie Lloyd injects his usual energy into proceedings and it’s all highly enjoyable.\
It’s a shame nobody can compete with Kristin. Her elder son, played by Joseph Millson, seems resigned and then simply angry. One daughter-in-law, an actress who won’t admit she stars in a soap opera, comes across as simply tiresome and it’s an unforgiving role for Freema Agyeman. More interesting is the character of future in-law Trudi, played by Laura Carmichael, who is challenged with meeting Kristin for the first time. Trudi is perky, apolitical and a Christian – it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. If this play is a battle of the generations – and younger characters frequently question the idealism of their elders’ activism – the odds seem pretty stacked to me.
Channing gets even more impressive in the play’s second, much darker, act. A second son, again played by Millson, suffers from depression and makes for a heartfelt scene. But the accusations against Kristin are too long and too feeble. A well-written cruel streak adds dramatic tension but is in questionable taste. A fairer perspective comes from Trudi, a character cleverly developed, and the defence of a “witness” in the form of her old friend (a strong performance from Des Barrit). And so Kaye Campbell provides resolution. If you suspect it’s a little too pat, it’s delivered with such skill that all is forgiven.
Jamie Lloyd might well be the perfect director for iconoclastic playwright Jean Genet. Both share an irreverent bold approach and a Baroque intensity epitomised in Lloyd’s stirring production of Genet’s 1947 piece. The sick, twisted, sexualised fantasies of two servants, role-playing the murder of their mistress, are made “drunk, wild, beautiful” in this visually arresting and accomplished show.
Lloyd also has a way with stars, enticing exciting talent to the West End and getting the most from many a performer. The luminaries here are Uzo Aduba (from Orange is the New Black), joined by Zawe Ashton, playing the titular revolting servants. Ashton gives a fine performance, Aduba a tremendous one. Intense from the start, Ashton drags up as her mistress for a disturbed ‘ceremony’ that’s an orgy of degradation, violence and kink – her jerky movements unsettle and excite. Aduba is an astonishing presence on stage, frightening and engrossing, her intelligent appreciation of the rhythm of the text carrying you forcibly through the traumatic, suspenseful, action.
When Mistress arrives it’s a blunt shock to find she’s every bit as bad as we’ve been led to believe. Laura Carmichael holds her own (no small achievement given the brevity of her role) portraying a superficial, doll-like rich bitch. This contemporary, recognisable, figure allows Lloyd to emphasise the play’s political content: the accents may be American but a London audience is instantly connected to Kensington.
Fun is had by Lloyd, in keeping with the work of translators Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton. Genet’s rich themes are explored bravely but there’s also humour from some of the exaggeration here – the maids giggle more than you might expect. The language is blue (very) but I can’t imagine Genet would blush. It’s surprising you don’t see this play revived more often. Lloyd’s production is a valuable addition to the reputation of a modern classic.