NEVER FLAT, COWARD
There ’s always a slight frisson when Noel Coward’s rueful, dark-streaked romantic comedy is revived in our censorious age. We are nine decades on from the night it first set about shocking the bourgeoisie with a portrait of the idlest rich: Elyot and Amanda meeting on adjoining Deauville balconies five years after divorce, and running away from respective honeymoon spouses. One can trust modern directors with the crystal-sharp bickering, deftly wicked character drawing of the awful new partners, and with the irresistible romance – “strange how potent cheap music is” . But some of us wait anxiously for how the squeamish 2020s will deal with the explosion of violence between Elyot and Amanda in the second act.
Especially his violence: cushion- throwing, trashing a chic Paris flat and an affronted lady smashing a vinyl record on a chap’s head all have a reassuring slapstick Tom-and-Jerry quality. But a really hard slap, a brief throttle, a throwdown, a headlock – not so much. I have seen productions dial it down a lot, and certainly avoid down the other couple’s need for a physical fight-arranger in Act 3.
No qualms here. Michael Longhurst lets his perfect quartet loose with all the feral fury Coward envisaged, which for Elyot and Amanda is the flip side of a white-hot erotic charge. They both need and enrage one another: as Elyot admits early on the eroticism of their love always did bring out their worst behaviour: jealousy, irritable frustration, self-pitying rages. Male energy, if you like, but absolutely shared by one of the women: the contrast between Laura Carmichael’s sweetly-manipulative wet Sibyl and Rachael Stirling’s commanding Amanda is beautifully brought out, right from the start in the initial sly costuming: Stirling towers in a tight flesh-gold dress on one balcony with Carmichael opposite in awful lettuce-green frills.
I had never thought of Stephen Mangan as a particularly Coward hero, but actually he is perfect as Elyot: saturnine, dark-browed, grownup, a bit faded , a devil with the neatly timed quips but carrying a real sense of a man who wishes he behaved better. Sargon Yelda as Victor, amusingly quite a bit shorter than his runaway wife Amanda (Stirling looks as if she could throw him over the balcony) is also interesting. He is allowed a bit more dignity than usual by this director, until the extraordinary encounter with Elyot near the end and his own collapse into fury at Sibyl.
This balance all the way through makes it not only very funny but, as Coward I suspect intended, edifying too. He, remember, had been working since he was 11 years old in the tiring, concentrated world of theatre: in this production more than usual I found myself reflecting that it is the wealthy idleness of these globetrotting social butterflies that dooms them. . It hollows them out until all that can be said is “Laugh at everything, even us. Let’s be superficial and pity the poor philosophers”
So a perfect rendering of a perfect play, violence and all, shying away from none of its darker streaks. The setting sings, too: Hildegarde Bechtler has them at first on a high balcony above some blue-green dustsheet billows and peaks like a rough Channel sea. Then a great wind – of passion, we must presume – suddenly whisks the cloth away and we are down in the Paris flat. Setting the furniture to make the cover’s peaks so oceanic is an art in itself. So is the music, especially when in the interval the violinist Faoileann Cunningham and the ‘cellist Harry Napier play together, in a musical joke of riposte and disharmony which elegantly reflects the male-female rows in the story. It culminates in Napier having to be driven resentfully off the set, kicking over his music stand. Nice.
Box office donmarwarehouse.com. to 27 May