Donmar Theatre, London, until May 27
It’s easy to sometimes feel hard done by as a theatregoer. Leafing through the programme to Michael Longhurst’s production of Private Lives, I found myself looking wistfully at a photograph of Noel Coward dining out with Maggie Smith and her husband Robert Stephens after they’d appeared in his celebrated play in 1972.
Then it struck me the punters who saw even that impossibly glamorous production probably wished they’d been able to see Laurence Olivier and Gertrude Lawrence appearing in the play when it opened for the first time in 1930. All that really matters, of course, is that any production should speak to its time and have something worthwhile to say.
There are lines in Coward’s play about a divorced couple awkwardly bumping into each other on their respective second honeymoons that sit uneasily with modern times. “Women should be struck regularly, like gongs” would have got a laugh in the thirties and even the early seventies, but now, with an uncomfortable awareness of domestic violence, it’s the line that makes audiences aware what a vile man Elyot Chase (Stephen Mangan) actually is.
As director, Longhurst chooses to confront the ugliness at the heart of this brittle comedy rather than shying away from it. The result is an extraordinarily powerful examination of a relationship that has turned sour that is played out with mesmerising intensity by Mangan and Rachael Stirling. The pair communicate love, lust, hatred and selfishness in equal measure and it’s interesting the way they both emerge ultimately as irredeemably rotten characters who to some extent deserve each other.
The play is funny now in a way that is tragic and punters find themselves laughing only at the hopelessness of the human condition. It adds a certain poignancy to the proceedings, incidentally, that Mangan, with his grey hair cut short for the part, bears an uncanny resemblance to Prince Andrew.
This stylish, thought-provoking production is the Donmar at its very best. The venue’s future looks uncertain – with its government funding cut, it will need to raise £3 million a year just to survive – but Longhurst is clearly determined to step down as its artistic director on a high
Nothing has become him more than the way he has chosen to leave this job.