Theatre at the Cinema: PRIVATE LIVES and the joys of performance

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The phenomenon of beaming live events to cinemas is now well established, though there is no truth to the rumour that the X-Factor musical I CAN’T SING will be screened live any time soon, seeing as the interval currently runs for forty minutes – I think they are trying to revolve the stage without a turntable. The screening of live performances from the National Theatre (Julie Walters in THE LAST OF THE HAUSMANNS) and the RSC in Stratford upon Avon (David Tennant in RICHARD II) is quite a money spinner. I must say that though not every play will benefit from this. The camera rather exposes the theatricality of the production and the more intense a performance, the more likely it is to be ruined by the camera. I would hate to be in the theatre when a performance is recorded; you’d be watching the camera team as much as the actors on stage. Still, certain productions and performances are preserved for posterity, for those unable to endure the high ticket prices and parking restrictions of London’s West End, these transmissions provide an access to theatre that would otherwise be denied. Plus you don’t have to worry about falling masonry or drumming just outside the theatre, to be describe two comparatively recent incidents affecting performances of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME and Peter Morgan’s THE AUDIENCE, starring Helen Mirren as Her Majesty the Queen, in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.

The Chichester Theatre production of Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES, starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor in the leading roles, was one such production screened live. This was recently re-screened at Cineworld cinemas across the United Kingdom free for holders of ‘Unlimited’ cards, so I did not have to fork out any extra lucre, or lycra for those cinemas accepting payments in tights. The evening felt a bit like television on the cinema screen, except with a fifteen minute interval. Normally in the theatre, the house lights go up and ushers selling ice cream take their places at exit points. At Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, we were left in the dark watching a fairly pointless caption card declaring a fifteen minute interval for the first 12 minutes, then a countdown from three minutes to one minute, then on to Act Three. I felt that this time could have been better used projecting the programme on screen, that is, biographies of the cast and production team and fun facts about previous productions. Much better than having to look up the information on our mobile phones.

The most famous production of PRIVATE LIVES in the last thirty-five years was staged on Broadway featured Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the leading roles. Taylor fumbled through her lines and tore into Burton as if they were still married. The production was financially successful and critic proof, even if Taylor’s vacillating behaviour led to cancelled performances. Burton was not in the best of health but got through the production. It was to be one of his final pieces of work.

By contrast, the actors Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor seemed in the best of health. The play describes the reunion of a once-married couple who meet again five years after their divorce in a hotel in Deauville whilst on their respective second honeymoons; moreover, they are staying in neighbouring suites. After a whirlwind, four month romance, Elyot Chase (Stephens) is now married to the young and frivolous Sibyl (Anna-Louise Plowman), a blonde quite skilled in the piano. Amanda Prynne (Chancellor) is now the wife of dumpy, dependable Victor (Anthony Calf), to whom she became betrothed after fearing that she would spend the rest of her life alone. After an opening of near misses, when both catch each other’s eyes, the old attraction is rekindled and they run away together, leaving their cocktails and spouses behind.

In Act Two, they are ensconced in a flat in Paris, their idyll broken by memories of the past, in particular Amanda’s flirtation with another man. By the end of Act Two, the safe word of ‘Solomon Isaacs’ having been abandoned, they are hitting each other and finally discovered by Sibyl and Victor who walk in on them as both are on the floor.

Act Three is the morning after. Sibyl sits in front of Elyot’s door, whilst Victor is front of Amanda’s room. They demand explanations. Amanda attempts to organise coffee from the maid, who has a brief speaking role, in French. By the end, we learn that neither couple will get divorced immediately. Victor turns on Sibyl and, as they fight, Elyot and Amanda slip away.

In Coward’s play, men strike women and vice versa. Director Jonathan Kent does not shy away from the convention that is now unacceptable. However, when shown on camera, the violence is so obviously faked that it doesn’t feel threatening or cannot be mistaken for behaviour that we would want to copy. The central performances are perfectly charming. Channelling Hugh Grant, Stephens resorts to toothy grimacing, but he reaches the perfect pitch of light comedy. Chancellor is equally charming. Whilst she lacks the danger of an Elizabeth Taylor, she gives a very physical performance, dancing at one point and climbing over props to get from her balcony to Elyot’s.

On camera, we can see the actors sweating, something we don’t ordinarily perceive in films or on television. Fortunately, there are not many tight close ups. The visual presentation is skilfully done; we are barely aware of the theatre audience watching it live. The odd burst of off-stage laughter reminds us they are there.

Coward’s play is entertaining but watching it projected, I did not feel it had a natural ending. The production seems to say that it is inevitable that men and women fight and that Elyot and Amanda have learned to accept that tempestuous rows are a part of domestic reality. I didn’t buy it and expected a Fourth Act that didn’t arrive. The Third Act was only slightly longer than the preceding interval.

I did enjoy the experience of theatre in a cinema; not perfect, but getting there and with proper titles that reminded us that we were at a remove. I shall probably watch another.

Reviewed at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, Screen 7, Thursday 20 March 2014, 20:00 start, preceded by trailers for GODZILLA, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, NOAH and THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 – I cannot see an elderly theatregoing crowd interested in those

About the author


Independent film critic who just wants to witter on about movies every so often. Very old (by Hollywood standards).

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