Private Lives at the Gielgud: Spot the sexual tension between Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

13 July 2013

9:00 AM


Globe, in rep until 13 October

Private Lives

Gielgud, until 21 September

It’s always a problem with Macbeth: what accents to use? The Globe is applying the traditional remedy. Lord and Lady Macbeth come from Epsom. Everyone else comes from Glasgow. This is a highly entertaining production — one of the best at the Globe in recent years — but it’s not entirely perfect.

Joseph Millson has pretty much everything you need to play Macbeth, good looks, physical stature, a soldierly bearing and a dash of melancholy. But he has something you don’t need at all. A gift for laughter. He’s such an instinctive comedian that he sends the audience into fits, without noticing it, by accident almost. And in the oddest places, too. Macduff and Lennox arrive at the castle where Duncan lies murdered. Macbeth sidles on from the wings and greets them, in his nightshirt, all stilted anxiety and shifty glances. It’s a performance Groucho Marx would have been proud of. Lennox talks of ‘lamentings heard i’ the air, and rough screams of death/ And prophesying, with accents terrible/ Of dire combustion and confused events/ New hatched to the woeful time.’ Macbeth agrees, ‘Twas a rough night.’ This too gets a massive laugh. And Millson’s tragic oratory at the end seems more like a chamber recital than a heart-wrenching act of self-discovery. I couldn’t quite suppress the notion that I was watching a handsome young Leslie Crowther auditioning for Braveheart. Millson is a wonderful presence on stage but he’s got the wrong skill-set for Cawdor.

Samantha Spiro plays Lady Macbeth as a fairy godmother with fangs. Her sleek, kittenish exterior conceals a psychotic ambition that is entirely believable but, like Millson, she gets more laughs than she means to. In the smaller roles there’s a lack of nobility and pathos. Billy Boyd (Banquo) seems rather suburban beside Millson’s dashing and rangy Macbeth. Stuart Bowman can’t find anything more in Macduff than monotonous spikiness, and he gives the thunderous line ‘hell’s kite’ a prosaic cadence, like a Govan shop steward ordering the boys to down tools.

Eve Best, a distinguished actor in her own right, directs the play with a lot of good sense but she can’t resist the urge to tinker. She gets the witches to hide in the balconies and to pop out from behind pillars doing to-wit to-woo noises in the middle of the night. This adds less to the atmosphere than one might have hoped. Macbeth and Macduff fight it out using tomahawks, not the traditional swords. And there’s too much bogus authenticity in the music, which is dominated by Irish-sounding bagpipes. The show closes with a dirge played on a viola, followed by a lengthy dance, which overstretches the stamina of the groundlings, who’ve been standing for three hours already.

Private Lives is nearly 85 years old but you’d never guess it from Jonathan Kent’s superb production.  There’s none of the brittle, dated, Noël Coward ‘atmosphere’ here. The play is tackled head-on in a forthright, immediate and gutsy manner that doesn’t stint on the marital abuse. Both women get hit by both men with proper slaps to the face. How up to date is that!

The action opens in a Deauville hotel where Elyot, a depressed playboy, is tiring of his beautiful but whiney new bride. When he learns that his former wife, Amanda, is in the adjoining suite with her new husband he persuades her to give him the elbow. The naughty pair run off to Paris for a weekend of booze and adulterous gymnastics. Some lines are so well known — ‘Very flat, Norfolk’ —  that they’ve become problematic. The audience expects more mirth than that little phrase can deliver. Never mind. The script is chockfull of quotable delights.

Toby Stephens has leveraged some of Russell Brand’s bored insouciance into the role of Elyot, the rootless hedonistic millionaire. Here he is prescribing sex as an anti-dote to death. ‘Kiss me, darling, before your body rots and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets.’ The house erupted in shocked guffaws at that one. Stephens’s facetious drawl reaches sublime heights when he calls his rival a ‘cotton-wool Englishman’ and a ‘rampaging gasbag.’ Grey-haired Anthony Calf is immensely and laudably wooden as Victor. With his tweedy three-piece and his T.S. Eliot sneer, Calf seems almost too stuffy to have bagged a randy cocktail-swigging fun-seeker like Amanda. The sexual atmosphere between the leads is terrific. Anna Chancellor plays Amanda as a reckless sexual exhibitionist with an undertow of sadness and self-doubt. The show’s trump card is that both actors have the one thing you can’t fake: style. In fact, there’s so much glamour oozing from this show that I hesitate to recommend a boring old seat in the stalls. Splash out on a box.

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