Noël Coward’s Private Lives is part screwball comedy, part investigation of the nature of love and passion, which this version at St. Hilda’s aims to emphasise. The 1930s comedy of manners follows a divorced couple, Amanda and Victoria, who end up at the same hotel as each other, staying there with their new partners, Sybil and Eleanor; emotional upset and a rekindling of their previous relationship ensues. The central change to this period drama is the featuring of two lesbian couples, rather than the original man and wife pairings; the director wanted to situate the play within a 1930s lesbian subculture, and by doing so, give the women in the play more agency, teasing out a different dynamic from the characters.
Apart from this, the play remains in its period setting, with the set featuring 1930s costumes and furniture. This follows a recent trend in Oxford productions to return plays to their original or true setting, rather than dragging plays into the modern day. In this, the director hopes to bring light to the existence of women’s varied lived experiences throughout history.
Mostly, though, this production highlights Coward’s exploration of the nature of love. Amanda and Victoria experience an addictive love, which creates extraordinary dependency; from the scene previewed, love flips between wild passion and affected coldness, with one character proclaiming ‘it’s love that does it – to hell with love’; to hell with this kind of love, certainly. The sparkling dialogue constantly skates between such declarations and stilted, anxious patter about nonsense, one instance of this, about travels in India, being particularly amusing in the previewed scene.
The director says the play has ‘something for everyone’ in its layers of humour and emotional turmoil; this refreshing take just might fulfil this promise.
Private Lives is showing from the Sunday to Tuesday of Fifth Week at 7:30pm in St Hilda’s.