THEATRE REVIEW: Private Lives (Melbourne Theatre Company)

Private Lives (Melbourne Theatre Company, 2014)

When the curtain came down I was a bit lost for words. All I could do was shake my head and ask “what just happened?” I was so confused. I didn’t get the point…but I did. But I just didn’t. AND WHY WAS THERE JACKSON FIVE MUSIC IN A 1930s PLAY?!

Okay, let me backtrack: Private Lives is a play that was written in 1930 by Noël Coward, about a divorced couple (Nadine Garner and Leon Ford) who reunite whilst both on their honeymoons with new spouses (John Leary and Lucy Durack). My first gripe was that Lucy Durack was marketed as the star so I thought “Oh, she’s playing against type – Kim Cattrall played the role on Broadway – so that’s pretty exciting”. Turns out she is not the lead at all and the marketing was just a ruse – a real pet hate of mine! The main reason I saw it was for her! Nadine Garner was fantastic in the role and I didn’t have a problem with the acting. It was a strong cast. Julie Forsyth also provided some comic relief as the French maid whose dialogue was all in French so that the audience members with a basic familiarity with the French language could feel all smug in their own understanding. I include myself in that but it just reeked of pretentiousness to me.

This promotional poster is a lie
This promotional poster is a lie

The first problem was that it just didn’t make sense why Sibyl (Durack) and Elyot (Ford) had even married in the first place – he treated her with utter contempt. She seemed a bit dumb and desperate to be loved but it was difficult to buy into the notion that he would have ever made the effort to propose to her. Similarly, Amanda (Garner) and Victor (Leary) made an unusual couple but were somewhat more believable: the vivacious, reckless woman who settles for a stable, ordinary (but wealthy) man. On the other hand, it was easy to understand why Elyot and Amanda ever fell in love (they were both very passionate people), and also why their marriage failed (they were too similar). This brings us to the second problem which is that all the characters were SO unlikeable. And not in the cool Girls kind of way, just in a: Wow, I don’t give a shit about these people kind of way. Because they’re all such DICKS.

Let's be arseholes together
Let’s be arseholes together

The third problem was that I just didn’t get the point. The quarrelsome lovers reunite and then inevitably begin to hate each other again… Okay. Fine. But that just didn’t seem to be enough. Long boring conversations about flippancy and other crap that I barely even remember. And it really wasn’t that funny. The girl next to me was pissing herself laughing at various moments when no one else in the sold out crowd was. It’s amazing how vastly different people’s senses of humour can be. It reminds me of the time when I went to a movie with a guy and there was an advertisement for the Summer Heights High DVD and he turned to me and said “I didn’t find that show that funny”. Deep down, I knew, at that moment, that it wasn’t going to work out between us. I mean, that is seriously a disgrace. Take a good long look at yourself. But I digress… I was amazed by this girl next to me. She even laughed at a line about how women deserve to be hit sometimes… Ummm, okay then. To be honest I think she may have been a personal friend of one of the actors who was just being over the top in her support. Interestingly she was one of the few audience members our age in the audience – we were clearly not the intended demographic. As a side note, we saw an old lady wearing sandals with pink socks in the foyer.

Posh people being posh
Posh people being posh

Arguably the biggest problem was the music. This was a play and it started with the cast singing a pretty average song which was a little odd, but okay, cool, I like musical numbers so as you were.* Then there were some instrumental numbers playing in the background like ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and that was fine. But then at one point there was other instrumental music and my friend whispered to me that it was a Kylie Minogue song and I thought yeah I’m pretty sure it’s not, this is the 30s, please. But then, Elyot actually started singing ‘Burn for You’ by John Farnham. JOHN FARNHAM WAS NOT AROUND IN THE 1930s! Then he changed it up to ‘We’ve Got Tonight’ which is from the late 70s. Don’t get me wrong, I love a contemporary spin probably more than the average person. I loved the contemporary soundtracks to The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013) and Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006) – it can work amazingly. But when a character within a 1930s play starts singing a song from 1990?! No. Just no. I can’t rectify that in my mind. Then they started playing an instrumental of ‘BLAME IT ON THE BOOGIE’ when Elyot and Amanda have a big fight. I mean, WHAT? I can’t even. I love the song but it was so out of place. If I, as a pretty open-minded twenty-something can’t appreciate these kinds of contemporary stylistic changes then I think that the MTC is really isolating their core demographic of seniors with these sorts of choices. This just screams old-person complaint. I usually roll my eyes when older audience members make these kinds of comments. BUT EVEN I AM OPPOSED. So what does that tell you? It seemed like too desperate a grab to get the under 30s approval. Maybe instead of inserting random music into old-fogey plays you could do a show like Spring Awakening, JUST SAYING. (Okay, that’s a bit harsh – they do offer a number of youth-friendly shows. But please do Spring Awakening, k thx bai.)

When they actually sat on the couch on the right we could not see a thing
When they actually sat on the couch on the right we could not see a thing

The best part of the show was when the curtain wouldn’t come up at the end and the cast had to carefully shuffle their way in front of it from the side of the stage to take their bows. They were laughing about it and were suddenly all so much more likeable as themselves. Lucy Durack is one of the most likeable people of all time but even her character was grating. YOU CAN DO SO MUCH BETTER SIBYL! STOP EMBARRASSING YOURSELF! I suppose the revolving stage was also pretty cool except our seats in the second row were pretty restricted so we missed a lot (and they weren’t even advertised as restricted view). There were some okay jokes, but only in a faint-smirk kind of way, not laugh out loud. Unless you were the girl next to me.

Sibyl being pathetic as she cops abuse from her new husband on the first night of their honeymoon
Copping abuse from her new husband on the first night of their honeymoon, as you do

Sometimes I think that plays just aren’t for me. I am tempted to write them off as an art form that appeals primarily to snobby pompous old gits (and some young ones). But then every now and then I see a great one (David Mamet’s Race, David Ives’ Venus in Fur, Eddie Perfect’s The Beast). And I’ve enjoyed a number of film adaptations of plays in recent years such as David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010), Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013) and Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011) based on Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. If I enjoy film then I feel like I should enjoy straight theatre – it’s all actors reciting lines so it should be similarly enjoyable, right? But I think there’s just something about long wanky conversations in enclosed spaces that turn me off. At least sometimes (all the plays mentioned above include these aspects too). Unfortunately that was indeed the case for me with Private Lives. If you’re a play lover you may find some value in it, but I don’t quite know where.

2.5 stars

Private Lives is currently playing at The Southbank Theatre until 8th March 2014

*Update: Turns out that “average” song I referred to is actually John Legend’s ‘All of Me’ – a song that is currently in the charts. That just makes it worse. Disgraceful. FYI the John Legend version is a lot better.

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