My love-hate relationship with Silo’s Private Lives [by James Wenley]
Consider this plot: A newly remarried man about town books into a hotel room for his honeymoon only to discover that his ex-wife has booked the very next room for her own honeymoon. Will old sparks be reflamed? And what about their new partners? Hijinks and hilarity ensue.
Sure sounds like a plot from a cookie-cutter romantic comedy. Get Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis to star. We’ll call it ‘The Honeymoon’. Print that money.
Theatre buffs like you know will know that this is in fact the plot of perennial favourite Private Lives by Noel Coward. Scandalous on its 1930 debut, director Shane Bosher, with a few cosmetic changes has thrust this comedy of bad manners into a raucous and sexy contemporary set version.
Matt Whelan and Mia Blake are the warring, chemically volatile ex-lovers Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, and it is their love-hate relationship that makes the play so delicious. It’s a dynamic that has provided good drama for centuries, and Coward’s dry wit is saturated with acid. Sighting each other on the hotel balcony they are aghast, but they are inevitably pulled back into their old romantic hurricane.
And it is here that I must confess my own love-hate relationship to Silo’s version of Private Lives. Updating the play to 2012 brings with its own baggage of and elements that don’t quite come together. As a critic I have no aversion to updating plays in general. While we don’t always need to be hit over the head with modern productions to get the ever important ‘contemporary relevance’, good ones usually create some interesting juxtaposition and colour to the plays. Shakespeare, ever adaptable, gets done like this all the time. Silo’s Tartuffe did it last year, though that was a big and more complete transformation that really indulged in the play’s farce. This Private Lives reminds me of the ‘contemporary’ version of the Importance of Being Earnest that Auckland Theatre Company did in 2010, with its focus on the idle rich, attention to what is ‘modern’ and a dominating aesthetic that was more style over substance.
The play’s 1930 origins are shown up in its rather exacting structure, the two opening scenes that introduce us to couple one – Elyot and Sibyl (Sophie Henderson), and couple two – Amanda and Victor (Sam Snedden), play out as mirror images, variations on the same dialogue between the couples to reveal their differences. There’s a contrivance to the exposition, both new partners immediately pushing their conversation to talk of the other’s ex. After many back and forths, entrances and exits, we join Elyot and Amanda for most of the second half. Sibyl and Victor return for a short Act Three. It’s winning formula, but as much as it is dressed up to feel like this is a play of today, we still feel its age.
Lanky Whelan is thoroughly impressive as Elyot, delivering Coward with panache and style. He is exactly what Elyot needs to be. But not what this production needs. Giving us a caddish old-school performance, deep voice and affectations, he doesn’t seem to fit within the ‘world’ as created. He’s a relic. No amount of skinny jeans, designer t-shirts and sunnies can change it. Still, I loved his performance.
As I did Mia Blake’s luminous Amanda who far more seems to be a woman of today, going for whatever she wants at any given moment, damn the consequences. She’s cutting, funny, and a very good dancer.
Henderson and Snedden also do very good work; Sophie displays a real knack for pushing performance extremes just far enough without resorting to caricature and Snedden’s Victor, is an endearing emasculated figure.
The ideas and themes contained in the play are of course still very relevant, especially the state of marriage as an institution and ever increasing divorce stats. Elyot and Amanda are a very recognisable trope but very vital. Their attempts and stopping arguments with safe word “Shollocks”, then having to endure two minutes of silence feels like something any number of self-help coaches might prescribe today.
There is actually a very good argument for Silo’s context; the updating of the music. Bosher uses song to wicked effect. Coward composed his song ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’ for the play. Here, that cloying, manipulative and oh-so-good pop song ‘Perfect Day’ becomes the score that reunites Elyot and Amanda. Scissor Sister’s new Track ‘Let’s have a Kiki’ energises Act Two as and Mia grooves around the stage. It’s an ear worm that has stuck, and I would gladly pay Private Lives a second visit just to see this scene again so much did I enjoy this particular private moment.
The dominating design features are architecturally stunning cube walls by set designer Rachael Walker. They are there to look good, and I appreciate the interaction and subtle shading with Sean Lynch’s Lighting Design.
Elyot says to “enjoy the party”, and that’s one way to experience this Private Lives, more trashy than sophisticated. There’s nothing new here, not least because it’s such a classic and familiar comedy, but so too because it’s realised from the same bag of Silo tricks: the ‘hip’ aesthetic, the contemporary script tweaks, the bold music, Mia Blake (but oh do we love her).
And so Private Lives, I love to hate you and hate to love you. And as much as I pull away, you pull me back in with your magnetic charm. So let’s leave it at that before we have to pull out a “Sollocks”.
Private Lives is presented by Silo and plays at Q until 29 September. More details see Silo.