I don’t know how this happened, but I appear to have reached the ripe old age of 58 without having seen a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives or witnessed the great Patricia Hodge live on stage.
Yesterday I put both of these grave injustices to rights and saw her perform opposite Nigel Havers in Christopher Luscombe’s production at the Ambassador’s Theatre. Needless to say, she stole the show.
Hodge was born to play twice married and not so shy Amanda. There’s such poise and precision in her performance, and a certain steeliness. She delivers lines like a switchblade between the ribs. Faced with such a lethal opponent, Havers struggled manfully at times and fluffed the odd line here and there.
It’s a strange play - curiously modern in many ways and very much of its time in others. First performed in 1930, it reminded me of Edward Albee or Harold Pinter, who challenged theatre audiences decades later with what became known as “the theatre of the absurd". There's an element of absurdism in Private Lives. Words are used as weapons, though Coward plays it for laughs rather than creating a feeling of foreboding. There’s no creeping sense of dread and no lengthy Pinteresque pauses.
But there are plenty of laughs. Even the sour faced, elderly couple sitting next to me cracked the odd smile. I don’t know what they were expecting, but I’m assuming that a savage comedy about the sanctity of marriage wasn’t it.
“Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow.”
Oscar Wilde said that, but it could just as easily have been Coward. Like Wilde before him, he tips conventional wisdom on its head. In one memorable scene, Elyot tells Amanda that she mustn’t be serious because it’s what “they” want - “they” being “all the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable.” At this point, I glanced at the couple next to me, who appeared to be sucking lemons.
The one glaringly wrong note is when Elyot says “women should be struck regularly, like gongs”. The whole audience cringed at that, and not in a good way. Later, when Elyot hits Amanda, she responds by punching him in the face. She also breaks something over his head. Coward clearly doesn’t see her as a victim. She gives as good as she gets. But even so.
West End audiences are a strange breed. There were cheers and a thunderous round of applause when Havers first appeared and only a smattering of applause when Hodge made an entrance. But in this battle of the sexes, it’s her who comes out on top.