20 September 2013
Tame violence in the climax to the second act in the 1976 BBC TV production.
To the extent Coward is 'modern' this potentially upsetting scene is the touchstone.
Although the marital violence is thankfully not underplayed in this production, this comedy has less to say about romantic love than self-love.
Coward’s biographer Philip Hoare, in the programme, claims his subject imbued this drama with tragedy, and that he is the descendent of Wilde and precursor to Beckett. All this is ridiculous, and not simply because the Irish dramatists are on a different order of achievement.
The physical violence in this comedy would be unthinkable in Wilde’s equivalent, and is far too easy compared to Beckett, who after all lived through a terrible war. Coward’s surrogate Elyot is that type of overcompensating sissy that Gore Vidal memorably identified in many of the warmongers of our age.
Nor, in this drama at least, does Shakespeare seem to be a strong presence, and this is probably a good thing for its survival. Though superficially about the battle of the sexes, in fact the bickering lovers are almost identical narcissists, as if the same character were duplicated on stage.
This may be a consequence of Coward’s closeted nature, but in any case, as he said about this work, it lacks a complete psychology. Elyot and Amanda are the same person, and I was struck with the thought that the real precursor here was Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, except that this really is the unintentional satire on romantic love that some critics bizarrely find in Wagner, presumably because they are deaf to his transfiguring music.
The core of the work, indeed it’s only interesting scene, is the second act, where the principles are together on stage. The first act is exposition, and the third act is a weak farce with an unsatisfying conclusion: we simply don’t care enough about the underdeveloped secondary characters, again something Coward acknowledged.
The central act remains effective in showing how self absorption can be self destructive, especially if you are as basically childish as Elyot/Amanda. Perhaps they are child-like, which would be much more charming and interesting, but this production nudges these precariously balanced characters towards the annoying.
Coward may have intended to make points about how intense romantic love operates in the real world, that such lovers neither cope together nor apart. But lovers are usually different people, indeed sometimes opposites in personality – I can’t believe Elyot and Amanda are different at all, except that Amanda is slightly sharper than her entirely tedious first husband.
Jonathan Kent’s production is too reverential. Some dated lines should have been cut (the audience knows what brioche is) and some crude aspects should have been subdued (an angry servant is not funny simply because she speaks only French). At least the set looked gorgeous.
Toby Stephens is miscast as Elyot: he doesn’t do camp very well, approaches hysteria at points, and is too muscular to make his fights with Amanda seem plausible. Anna Chancellor is an excellent Amanda, and if she gurned excessively, I suspect she had no choice given the script.