STRATFORD, ON—Noël Coward said that the critical response to his Private Lives “connoted in the public mind ‘cocktails,’ ‘evening dress,’ ‘repartee’ and irreverent allusions to copulation,” and director Carey Perloff seems to have similar ingredients in mind with her current staging of the play at the Stratford Festival. When Elyot Chase (Geraint Wyn Davies) first walks onstage, his pink jacket practically matches his Boulevardier. He is honeymooning with his much younger wife, Sybil (Sophia Walker), in a gorgeous hotel suite: the background is a series of Art Nouveau swoops in Argentinian and Egyptian blue, courtesy of designer Ken MacDonald, and evokes the feeling of a life spent on cruise ships.
But any tranquility is soon squashed when Elyot spots his ex, Amanda (Lucy Peacock), who is likewise celebrating her marriage to the youthful Victor Prynne (Mike Shara). Within moments, they’ve reconciled; within days, they are back into their old rhythms of fighting, making love, and throwing punches. Sybil and Victor, finding themselves abandoned, join forces and follow the couple to Paris.
Davies and Peacock make a superb pair, their eyes glistening throughout with mischief and desire. The actors are clearly comfortable with one another, and they share a handful of nice, quiet moments in addition to the louder ones, moments in which we see the old familiarity of this pair peeking through. For example, when they sit down to cocktails, after five years of silence, Amanda wordlessly holds her drink out to Elyot, who takes her orange slice without comment. Such intimacies make the more outlandish moments all the more convincing.
I do think there is more darkness to this play than is suggested by Perloff’s direction. After all, Elyot and Amanda are as unhappy together as they are apart, and both are prone to a violence that is tempered if not altogether ignored in this production. Still, the delights of Private Lives surely outweigh its more cynical touches. There’s certainly nothing wrong with cocktails, evening dress, and irreverent allusions to copulation.