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Private Lives by Noel Coward, adapted by Marcy Kahan

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BBC Radio 4, 2 January 2010
 
Noel Coward's comedy of (bad) manners has been a perennial favourite ever since its 1930 premiere at London's Phoenix Theatre, when Coward himself partnered Gertrude Lawrence in a production that revealed the Master's peculiar talent for creating brittle dialogue which, although funny in itself, nonetheless revealed the characters' basic fragility. If they didn't have the chance to exchange insults, their entire world would collapse.
 
Sally Avens' production offered a new twist on familiar material by conceiving the two main characters Elyot (Bill Nighy) and his ex-wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) as middle-class social misfits who certainly had the wealth to enjoy holidays in the south of France, but whose accents suggested that they would never be accepted by cafe society. They could only really find security in one another's company; even though they were now divorced and married to other people. On this view Private Lives became a play about alienation: the only way Elyot and Amanda could cope with it was to indulge in endless verbal repartee. However uncomfortable reality kept breaking in - for example, through the music trilling away in the background (Coward's famous song "A Room With A View") which reminded both Elyot and Amanda of the idyllic existence they would never be able to enjoy. Amanda's song "Someday I'll Find You," delivered by Bonham Carter in a thin, reedy voice, expressed her yearnings for security ("True to the dream I am dreaming/ As I draw near, you'll smile a little smile.")
 
As the production unfolded, I came to understand how Private Lives adumbrates the Theatre of the Absurd in its portrayal of characters with little or no meaning to their lives. They pass the time by indulging in verbal violence, which can be incredibly cruel yet somehow provides a source of security for them. So long as Elyot and Amanda can insult one another, or make life unpleasant for their respective partners Victor (Paul Ritter) and Sybil (Andrea Riseborough), then they are spared the ordeal of contemplating the emptiness that perpetually threatens to engulf them.
 
In the mid-1950s Noel Coward was dismissed by critics such as Kenneth Tynan as a representative of the old order, a frivolous world of tea parties and social gadflies who had little to say in a context dominated by Angry Young Men such as Osborne. Happily Coward's reputation has significantly improved over the last decade, with groundbreaking revivals of his comedies revealing his preoccupation with notions of sexuality, class and loneliness. Avens' revival of Private Lives helped to deepen our understanding of his gifts as a dramatist; I hope it is repeated soon.