How Private Lives put Hampstead Theatre in the public eye

PUBLISHED: 12:06 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 07 September 2010

Noel Coward s classic is being revived by Hampstead Theatre in a season to mark its 50th anniversary. Prior to its performance at the venue in 1962, the play had become deeply unfashionable. But as past and present directors tell Bridget Galton, it is any

Noel Coward's classic is being revived by Hampstead Theatre in a season to mark its 50th anniversary. Prior to its performance at the venue in 1962, the play had become deeply unfashionable. But as past and present directors tell Bridget Galton, it is anything but

LUCY Bailey had never seen a Noel Coward play when she was hired to direct Private Lives for Hampstead Theatre's anniversary season.

Renowned for her strong visual staging of new writing and Shakespeare, she had always dismissed such crowd-pleasing drawing room plays as unexciting.

But then she came across Coward's experimental short plays - Tonight At 8.30 - and everything changed.

"When I left university, Coward had almost become too popular for his own good. I dismissed him as being a bit staid and old hat. He represented the realm of the am-dram and rep companies.

"But then a friend of mine told me to read these short plays and I found them magical, surprising, fun, sexy and surreal - all things I hadn't previously associated with Coward. He dares to play about with form and be provocatively comic and deeply sternly tragic at the same time."

Bailey directed Tonight At 8.30 two years ago at the Chichester Festival Theatre and it awakened her interest in Coward's better known work.

"Private Lives would not have been the play I would have first jumped on. But once I had made that journey with the small plays, it woke me up to his other work.

"It surprised me to discover that he is in his own way an existentialist. He questions why we are here. You don't hear a word said about the First World War, but the agony of those questions about the collapse of faith and the constant search for love and purpose permeates his plays."

Coward's work had been similarly dismissed in 1962 when Hampstead Theatre founder James Roose-Evans decided to revive Private Lives.

It was the era of kitchen sink drama - gritty working class realism - and Coward's witty middle-class comedies were thought irrelevant to modern life.

"We had only opened at Swiss Cottage a few months before and we were already floundering in debt," says Roose-Evans, who lives in Belsize Park.

"It was a small cast play and I had directed it two years before so I knew it was a marvellous, witty piece of writing about the complexity of relationships.

"It may be elegant on the surface but underneath it's about the loneliness and pain of people trying to find their own centre.

"Coward's reputation was at its lowest ebb and many people wondered what I was doing with a 'dreadful old play like that' but we cast young, unknown actors and got the notices of a lifetime. It really put Hampstead Theatre on the map."

Coward, who flew in from Switzerland for the first night, had authorised a West End transfer by the second interval and the production, overseen by impresario Michael Codron, enjoyed a long run which generated much-needed funds for Hampstead.

Thereafter, Coward experienced a revival in fortunes and referred to the production as "dad's renaissance".

Written in 1929, Private Lives concerns former husband and wife Elyot and Amanda who fall in love and hate all over again when they end up honeymooning with their new spouses in the same hotel.

It is more often staged in large West End venues but Bailey says Hampstead's more intimate theatre enables their obsessive attention to each other to emerge as they talk quietly intensely "almost in code" to each other.

"I have sought to honour this play," says Bailey, who directed the award winning Comfort Me With Apples at Hampstead three years ago.

"With every play, I try to be truthful to its spirit while opening up imaginative corners that the audience perhaps hasn't accessed before. The challenge is not to superficially go for laughs or muck around with Private Lives but to get human with it, get inside it - under its skin."

Bailey revels in the play's "subversive naughtiness" and hidden depths.

"It is hiding some very deep things within what seem to be almost farcical situations.

"Coward's interest isn't in the fact of the situation but in this quest for love - a quest to solve our loneliness. I hadn't understood quite how richly real you have to be with it. There is a poetic realism that chimes quite oddly with the received idea of it."

She says that perception of clipped vowels, smoking jackets and the idle rich brings a self-consciousness to the work as people confuse Coward with his own plays. "If you take class for granted, you don't have to struggle to be these people, you just see how they are harming each other, the damage done and the heartbreak that happens.

"Elyot and Amanda happen to be people who can think in a deliciously, clever witty way but part of their pain is they can't stop themselves and before they know it they have hate and division. It means they can never be at peace with someone and experience a constant sense of isolation.

"This play will go on and on and on and will never be irrelevant because it is about people and how they behave."

Private Lives runs at Hampstead Theatre from today until February 28.

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