By Noël Coward
Directed by Shane Bosher
Silo Theatre, Auckland | September 6-29
Private Lives is pretty much the perfect play. Written by Noël Coward back in 1930—which still makes it a modern play if you think about it—it originated the romantic comedy genre and is, for my money, still the best example of the genre. It stands on so many borderlines: the dialogue is super-smart and super-fast without ever becoming inaccessible or stepping into the land of nobody-talks-like-this; it’s high-concept but never loses sight of the reality at the core of the story or becomes a story about ‘rich white people problems’; and the characters are never so unlikeable that they become unbearable. It’s a play that deals with marriage, divorce, and all the messy emotions that come on either side of those words, and in between them. There are better plays than Private Lives, but Private Lives is so perfect at what it’s trying to be that it’s obvious to see why Silo would stage a revival.
Private Lives is a deceptively simple story: Elyot Chase (Matt Whelan) is on his honeymoon with his new young wife Sibyl (Sophie Henderson). It’s already clear that it’s not an entirely happy marriage, with Elyot dismissing a lot of Sibyl’s concerns and almost childlike love for him. Amanda Prynne (Mia Blake) is also on her honeymoon with Victor (Sam Snedden), and this marriage is similarly unhappy, though Amanda seems more determined to make her marriage work than Elyot is to make his. Before long, we find out that not only were Elyot and Amanda once married, they’re actually honeymooning at the same place. And thus the scene is set for the verbal, and sometimes physical, sparring between these once-spouses who may or may not love each other.
Silo has updated the play in several ways: rather than honeymooning in Deauville, the couples are honeymooning in Monaco, and there are small script changes that reference the Internet and texting, which place us right in the present day. The music choices also help a lot with these changes, with some very 2012 selections like Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’ and an amazing use of ‘Let’s Have a Kiki’ by Scissor Sisters, which features some amazing dancing from Blake. It’s a smart choice for a revival, and as iron-clad as the play is, I’m not sure we need to see another version of it set squarely in the 1930s. Updating it shows just how vital and prescient the work still is.
The visuals are also decidedly modern, with some textured white walls (I wish I knew more about interior design to describe them better) and some very expensive-looking chaise lounges. I need to give special recognition to Charlotte Rust’s costume design, especially for the two actresses: not only do they define the characters instantly, but also they’re very fun to look at. A leather (maybe pleather?) number of Mia Blake’s later on in the piece has stunned me more than any other costume that I’ve seen this year. Stunning to look at and a great character choice.
Once again, Silo has assembled a great cast for a production. Private Lives is so reliant on the actors to sell the characters and the concept; Elyot and Amanda need to have such an intricate chemistry that is not only believable, but also appealing, whether the characters are warm to each other in that moment, or as cold as ice. Matt Whelan and Mia Blake embody this kind of chemistry and even improve upon it, trading Coward’s rhythmic barbs expertly but also seeming to mirror each other’s physicality. They move fluidly and floridly, keeping within the slightly heightened dialogue and situation the play sets up, and it’s immensely fun to watch. Whelan’s lanky frame is a great fit for the rakish Elyot, and he milks every comic pause just the right amount; it goes from being funny to not being funny to being even funnier. As Amanda, Mia Blake is simply incredible. She nails the comedy of the part—as one has to do in this play—but she finds the darkness and drama of Amanda in her silences. You can almost see her Amanda going over her life with wistful regret, and it’s a joy to see. Whelan and Blake are also immensely charismatic performers, which is what this play needs, but they don’t coast on that charisma—they let it flow into their characters and into the play itself.
Sam Snedden and Sophie Henderson are also highlights in the smaller, but no less significant roles, of the spouses. Henderson absolutely owns the stage when she walks onto it, and she makes Sibyl’s simpering and girlishness endlessly appealing; you totally see why Elyot would marry this girl even if he might be regretting it now. She also fires off some of the best one-liners in the play without missing a single beat; I would love to see this actress play Amanda in a few years. On the other hand, Snedden totally gets the blustery masculinity of Victor, how he wants to do right by Amanda no matter how wrong she’s done by him, and he scores some real choice laughs from Victor’s simple inability to deal with the rapid-fire dialogue of Elyot and Amanda. Both actors inject the play with a more manic energy late in the second act, proving that this play is more than just two actors trading barbs—it’s a real ensemble piece.
It’s not news to any theatregoer in Auckland that Silo does good theatre. And more than often, it does great theatre. They’re putting on theatre that takes risks, whether it’s putting on a new play like Tribes, reviving an underrated classic in Top Girls, or in this case, reviving a play that everybody loves and doing it in a new, inventive way. It falls squarely in the realm of “great theatre,” but also “theatre you should see because it’s a boatload of fun.” So see it.