Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Comedy is a window on to characters’inner lives

Comedy is a window on to characters’inner lives

HE wrote it in just four days but nearly 90 years on Private Lives remains one of Noël Coward’s most celebrated and enduring works.

The play, which has just started a six-week run at the Mill at Sonning, opens in Deauville on the Normandy coast.

The year is 1930 and following a tumultuous and fiery marriage, divorced couple Elyot and Amanda find themselves occupying adjacent suites while honeymooning with their new partners, Sibyl and Victor.

The view from their adjoining balconies is shimmering sea and moonlight — so romantic! — and when Amanda overhears a familiar voice singing ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’ old passions reignite and the estranged lovers run away together to Paris to flirt and fight before being tracked down by their jilted spouses — with explosive and hilarious consequences.

The production is being directed by Tam Williams, the actor son of Archers star Simon, who directed another of Coward’s comedies, Blithe Spirit, at the Mill in 2016.

Not that this was his first encounter with “The Master”.

“For about six or seven years on Radio 4 I did The Noel Coward Mysteries with Malcolm Sinclair and Eleanor Bron,” says Tam. “I played Cole Lesley, who was Noël’s secretary, and I learned a lot about him then.

“And now, having worked on Blithe Spirit, I’ve fallen in love with him — I sit there watching Private Lives and I just want to be in it.

“He wrote it in four days. He had the idea in Japan and wrote it in China — he had it mapped out. And in four days it was done.

“He sent it to Gertrude Lawrence, who he wrote the part of Amanda for, and they tried it out.

“It ran in the West End then they took it to New York and it was absolutely a huge success.”

For Tam, the dynamic between the two main characters, Elyot and Amanda, who are played at the Mill by Darrell Brockis and Eva-Jane Willis, is very much one of “can’t live with each other, can’t live without each other”. Coward’s achievement as a playwright is to make the audience privy to all the pair’s foibles and inconsistencies.

“It is as it says — private lives,” adds Tam. “You’re looking in at these two people and they’re sort of toxic, Amanda and Elyot, and very funny and childish, and all the different aspects of human beings.

“And it’s like it’s been written yesterday — or today. I mean, it’s completely modern — in what is not being said — and it’s a joy to play as an actor.

“I mean, I look at the actors we’ve got and I feel very lucky, but they are doing it and I really hope they’re doing it how he [Coward] would have intended.

“It’s not silly, it’s not affected, it’s not all about the RP accents, it’s just about humans. And they kind of argue, sitting there. Terrible, the way they treat each other,” he laughs. From what he says, they sound quite badly behaved!

“Oh, very badly behaved. And, you know, it’s appalling what they do. But it’s also very funny.

“It’s kind of comedy with high melancholy, side by side. So there’s moments of massive pathos next to moments of very high comedy.

“And it kind of ebbs and flows — as in real life. It’s not like a normal comedy, really. In a way you get to know the characters really, really well. So it’s been a total joy.

“There was one rehearsal where we were working till 11 at night and hadn’t really noticed. You could just keep going because it’s got so many layers, you know?

“And it’s all based in complete and absolute truth — the humour comes from truth, you know, the pathos comes from truth.

“So it’s been really wonderful to keep peeling back the layers to find the actual ‘what is that?’ How do we play that line as absolutely straight as possible to get all the things you need — the weight? How do you make it work that way?

“It’s been a little acting lesson for me, just watching the process of the actors finding the right way. Not the cheap way — not ‘Ooh, let’s lampoon that line’ — but the most straight way of delivering the text. And it’s the simplest that’s often the best.”

Tam, who is married with four children, has been commuting to Sonning from London for the past month to work on the production.

“I’m coming in from just outside Clapham Junction, so I’m cycling to the station, catching the train to Twyford, then using a scooter which I’ve got down here to get to the Mill. But it’s worth it because every time I get here I sort of let out a big sigh of relief as I’m greeted by a beautiful, peaceful scene. And then I’m working on a great play, so it’s well worth the journey.

Private Lives is a very different play to Blithe Spirit. I mean, there are echoes of it, but Blithe Spirit doesn’t develop.

“This is like a proper, intricate look at these two people, like under the telescope — a bit like a full-on episode of Big Brother or any of those reality TV shows.

“You’re looking in at this — these people who maybe should or shouldn’t be together. It’s really funny — you’re a proper voyeur in the audience and it’s really fascinating to watch. Each time I watch it, it’s compelling — you can’t not watch it. It’s weird.”

Private Lives is playing at the Mill at Sonning until Saturday, August 3. Saturday matinées take place each week, with Sunday matinées from June 30 to July 28. For tickets and times, visit www.millatsonning.com

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