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PRIVATE LIVES (article first published : 2002-10-6)

Currently playing Kwasuka Theatre after appearing as the Nedbank/Syfrets Private Banking Flagship production of the Natal Witness Arts Festival is Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

First performed in 1930, the five-hander features Amanda and Elyot Chase, characters created by Noel Coward for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. A couple that is worldly, fashionable, brittle, highly sophisticated, extremely opinionated and passionately in love with each other. However, they cannot be in each other’s company for very long without breaking into energetic – and often, violent – argument.

The play sees their meeting again years after their divorce and several hours after their respective re-marriages. In other words, as bad luck would have it, on their wedding nights. Things are not going well, their new spouses being highly unsuitable in every way for their glamorous personalities. Elyot has married Sybil, a charming and emotional woman many years his junior. Amanda’s new husband is the rather stolid and old-school-tie Victor Prynne. Making a brief appearance towards the end of the play is the maid.

Ralph Lawson brings his usual style, polish and control to the part of Victor and Belinda Harward is cool, sophisticated and impressively multi-faceted as Amanda. Stacey Taylor, appearing in her best role so far, is endearing and sparkling as Sybil while Kevin, also giving his most notable performance to date, presents a believable and infuriatingly immovable Victor. Olivia Borgen extracts much humour from the part of the snuffling, cold-ridden maid.

Greg King has made a daring and challenging move in producing and directing this play for his innovative KickstArt theatre company, particularly at a time when Private Lives is enjoying a vigorous revival worldwide. In the main his version works, the considerable skills of his cast generating a spirited and well-presented rendition of Coward’s superb dialogue.

The first act is all it should be – witty small talk, barbed remembrances and protestations of enduring affection for the newly weds. But it is the second act that is the telling yardstick. Here we see Amanda and Elyot back together again and observe the emotions that drive their actions. They can’t live apart as complete individuals … and in living together, they destroy each other.

A volatile relationship that erupts into the turbulent fight scene that Coward places in this act must be based in an electric and all-embracing physical relationship. This did not come across in the production. Ralph Lawson and Belinda Harward work extremely well together and their mutual scenes are strong and well-played but I missed the smouldering volcano that must make sense of the eventual eruption.

Greg King’s set is attractive and suitably period and Andrew Verster has designed some beautiful costumes – particularly the gown that Amanda’s wears in her opening scene and Elyot’s Japanese-styled dressing gown in Act Two.

The production is perfectly suited to the intimate Kwasuka Theatre and is a must for all lovers of good drama. Private Lives runs until October 19. Book at Computicket. – Caroline Smart




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