Generally speaking, Noël Coward’s plays are not famed for their versatility, but St. Hilda’s Drama Society’s production of Private Lives shows that bold new takes can really pay off. Originally written for a cast of two men and three women, this all-female version is directed and performed with great confidence and flair.
From the play’s opening moments, Jhanie Fender gives a beguiling Eleanor opposite a charming and sensitive Sybil played by Malia Russell Willis. The text itself gives clear prominence to the character of Eleanor (called Elyot on the page), whom Coward himself originally played, but the generosity of Fender’s performance and the expressiveness of Russell Willis’ make both stand out in equal measure. Likewise, the strong, stationary presence of Shasta Kaul as Victoria and the blustering vitality of Freya Cunningham’s Amanda compliment each other well, and when the initial pairings are rearranged, the strong character work from all of the actors helps to create a new and refreshing dynamic. All of these assets combine in building towards a final denouement that brings out the best in each performer, including a brief but highly commendable performance from Irina Boeru as Louise, whose knack for comic timing (and French dialogue) were very impressive indeed.
The whole production was remarkably polished for an opening night performance. The universal sharpness of cues heightened the comedy of the play’s snappy repartee and gave moving prominence to its more restrained, sentimental moments. The mounting tension between Eleanor and Amanda in their long scene together in Act I is a particular testament to this: the oscillations between comedy and deeper truth were well handled and highly engaging, and it is clear that the actors have been directed with great skill, while also being granted a good deal of creative freedom. The performers were also evidently having great fun with the text, but their verbal dexterity and physical comedy never came too close to caricature, which is always a risk with comedies of manners.
It is their natural snappiness, however, that the actors must be wary of. During moments in which tensions ran high, there were just a few instances where the ends of lines were lost, either because of a tendency to rush them, or because an actor jumped on their cue slightly too fast. There were also a couple of points where actors appeared quite close to corpsing, but as they relax into their run there is no doubt that these problems will be rectified. St. Hilda’s Drama Society have taken on a difficult play, and have risen to the challenge with the energy and panache that the text demands. Their successful reimagining of the text has created something both lighthearted and moving, and the cast and crew take it to new and exciting places while giving a confident nod to the original blithe Cowardian spirit.