Monday 26 June 2017

Coward's class revenge is triumphant

Class codes are wickedly observed in Coward's naughtiness, observes Emer O'Kelly

Private Lives

Gate Theatre, Dublin

Yeats Besotted

Bewleys Cafe Theatre, Powerscourt, Dublin

Rebecca O’Mara and Peter Gaynor in the Gate’s production of ‘Private Lives’ by Noel Coward.
Photo: Pat Redmond
Rebecca O’Mara and Peter Gaynor in the Gate’s production of ‘Private Lives’ by Noel Coward. Photo: Pat Redmond

Emer O'Kelly

Like Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward was a parvenu: accepted in "society", but not of it. And both revenged themselves on those who subtly excluded them by parodying society itself, Wilde outrageously, Coward more deviously. He even wrote Hands Across the Sea, a one-act play guying the Mountbattens; they never forgave him.

All of his plays are concerned with the insouciant security of the insiders, behaving badly because it never occurs to them that anybody who matters will censure them. And of course, they're right: in Private Lives, Elyot and Amanda abandoning their new spouses on honeymoon to run off with each other and resume their former bliss - without benefit of marriage this time - will merely be a source of amused gossip. They haven't rocked either of the boats which matter: class and lineage/inheritance.

In the class from which Coward had escaped, moral ruin would have been swiftly followed by social expulsion.

Shaw had poked fun at it all years earlier in Pygmalion, with the dustman Doolittle's lamentation on the terrors and traps of middle-class morality.

And that's what makes Private Lives such a perfect play when it's given a good production: the codes are all there under the wit and the froth. And it's given a very good production indeed by Patrick Mason as the interim production at the Gate between the regimes of Michael Colgan and Selina Cartmell.

There's a lightness throughout, with walls intimated by gauzy curtains (design is by Francis O'Connor), and the period invoked by a shadowy backdrop of Josephine Baker, the black American cabaret chanteuse who broke the 1920s rigid barriers to become the toast of Paris and beyond.

Attempts at brittle sophistication in productions of Coward (particularly when they are not English) often fall flat on their un-stylish faces, but this one works as smoothly as Amanda's silk pyjamas. Shane O'Reilly and Rebecca O'Mara as the warring Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne inhabit the characters realistically: these are not cardboard cut-outs, but lovers for whom passion is as much a curse as a blessing. You can actually sympathise under the laughter with the real tragedy of a man and a woman who can't live with each other but can't live without each other.

And they are given terrific support from Lorna Quinn and Peter Gaynor as the discarded bride and bridegroom respectively (although, without being catty, Quinn looks considerably older than the character's stated 23 years).

With Esosa Ighodaro as the maid, lighting by Sinead McKenna, and sound by Denis Clohessy, this Private Lives has substance and structure.

*******

When a play has a title like Yeats Besotted, you'd expect a bit of fire and passion. Well, there's little sign of besottedness, or any other emotion for that matter, in the play of the name by Cathal Quinn, who also directs it (drearily) at Bewley's Cafe Theatre in Powerscourt in Dublin.

It's supposed to be a fictionalised account of the more than well-documented "love affair" between WB Yeats and Maud Gonne McBride.

They're played by Philip Judge and Melissa Nolan, the former without very much presence, the latter doing nothing much more than strike poses and pat and stroke her stomach.

There's a supposed catalyst played by Sean Duggan, Yeats' fellow Senator Thomas Westropp Bennett.

He's portrayed as a staunchly ignorant uneducated Catholic bigot, an upholder of the hypocritical and religious status-quo, and as blackmailing Yeats by means of having come across his (very mildly) salacious correspondence with his inamorata.

I don't know much about Westropp Bennett, but it seems highly unlikely, given his extremely distinguished, if right-wing, parliamentary career record.

Gabriel Rosenstock has a programme credit, although it's not clear what for. It may be for some songs in Irish sung rather unsurely by Duggan.

It's a Mouth on Fire production.

Sunday Independent

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