Private lives in the real world

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A ROMANTIC balcony scene in Riviera. Two couples honeymooning. Then the discovery that one husband and wife have recently been divorced.

Yes, it’s Noel Coward’s “Private Lives”, surely as British a play as you could find anywhere.

Well, no, actually, says Jamaican-born actor Zahra Newman, the Victorian College of the Arts graduate and Melbourne Theatre company’s star who’ll be here soon to play the elegant and occasionally violent wife, Amanda.

“The play deals with relationships that would occur in any context, whether in Asia or America or England or wherever,” she asserts.

There’s a nice irony, she finds, in the fact that Coward spent much of his later life on Jamaica entertaining celebs in his mansion “Firefly”. And she’s pretty sure he would have been “absolutely fine” with the international approach to the casting of the play in this production by Belvoir’s artistic director Ralph Myers.

“In Ralph’s vision we decided to get away with all the fangles and hoity-toity accents and get into what’s going on in the relationships,” she says.

She knows the argument that Coward faithfully records the manners of the upper classes of his era, but argues back, “that is something we don’t have today, we have a massive middle class.”

“When you open the play, what you read is ‘Private Lives, three acts, set in the present day’ – it doesn’t say set in 1930s France… the present day is what interests Ralph,” she says.

“People are still people… the relationships are still the same… look, if your father died and your mother married your uncle, you’d still be upset, just like Hamlet.”

In Newman’s opinion, this “very, very good play” is so good, “because on the surface it’s a comedy, a farce, but underlying it is a darker commentary about men and women.”

And that brings us to a difficult “modern” question that keeps coming up at post-show Q&A sessions with schoolchildren.
“Some of the kids have said “we really, really liked Elyot [played by Toby Schmitz], he was charming but he was a wife-beater…we feel terrible liking him.”

It is not how Coward would have viewed it, and Amanda throws things at Elyot as much as the other way round.
“Is it better,” she asks, “to settle for just anybody over a volatile, tumultuous relationship? Coward seems to accept that violence lies beneath many relationships.”

Belvoir’s “Private Lives”, The Playhouse, November 21-24. Bookings to 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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