There’s scarcely a more quotable comedy in the English language than “Private Lives,” so the first thing to be said about Howard Davies’ glorious West End reclamation of Noel Coward’s perennially popular play is how piercing its silences turn out to be. That’s not to suggest Davies has performed a Pinteresque conjuring act on Coward, even if the director is in every way blessed to have as his leading lady Lindsay Duncan, an actress whose shimmering allure suits Coward’s barbs as fully as it does a Harold Pinter pause. What sets this apart from any other “Private Lives” I’ve seen — a misconceived National Theater revival two years ago included — is a collective understanding of the ache that underlies the badinage, with the once-married Amanda (played by Duncan) and Elyot (Alan Rickman) trading banter to hide mutually heaving hearts. The show gets its requisite laughs — Rickman finds one in the single word “escape” — while revealing itself in an altogether different hue whereby hate is inextricably linked to love and sorrow shadows even the cleverest of quips.
The shift in affect comes from nothing beyond a willingness to start from the text, not from any received notion of Coward-style posturing and camp. The result is a comedy played for real, for a change, that effects transformations large and small. For instance, Elyot’s new wife, Sibyl, usually (and often memorably) emerges as the butt of some of Coward’s crueler jokes (few who saw it will forget Sara Crowe in the part torpedoing a previous West End revival out from under Joan Collins’ Amanda). On this occasion, Emma Fielding re-evaluates the play’s primary figure of fun not as a dimwit but as a sensible, bright-eyed bride brought low by a new husband unused to her brand of seriousness — especially when confronted across a Deauville balcony by his onetime wife, Amanda, for whom Elyot still lies emotionally in wait. (That hotel, incidentally, is by itself worth the price of admission, designer Tim Hatley’s narrowing facade a witty Gaudi-style wedding cake of a building displaced to the south of France.)
Given the scenario, what can the discarded Sibyl and Victor (Adam Godley) — Amanda’s latest amorous recruit — do beyond look on in disbelief, Godley’s perf extending the luxury casting with a grinning eagerness that is itself capable of going sour? In context, it’s scant surprise that the play’s subsidiary pair here come off as a debased version of Amanda and Elyot, with Sibyl and Victor enmeshed in an enmity all their own, leaving the leads time to sneak away in the best Coward tradition. That the younger duo clearly are fated to repeat the pattern of their elders — albeit on a less exalted scale — reminds one once again of the ways in which “Private Lives,” among other works, can be seen to anticipate “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” another play about two couples, gamesmanship and the unforgiving seesaw between desire and despair. (Davies has directed “Virginia Woolf,” so may well have had the affinities in mind.)
Amanda and Elyot’s reunion also reunites Duncan and Rickman, former Royal Shakespeare Co. contemporaries who partnered to career-making effect under Davies’ direction on “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which earned Tony noms for all three in its 1987 Broadway stand. Since then, Rickman has had a rough time of it onstage, and it’s fair to guess his heavy-lidded, faintly languorous Elyot won’t be to everyone’s taste. On the other hand, that basset-hound demeanor from the outset hints at the wistfulness that here gets folded in beneath the jibes, with Rickman possessing the “shifty eyes” ascribed to Elyot by Sibyl’s mother. And when the actor takes to the piano to sing “If Love Were All,” his voice cracking with feelings that dare not speak their name, the character’s waspish petulance is redefined as a defense against pain: For the “two violent acids” that are Amanda and Elyot, love and war are one.
Duncan, in turn, has been a stranger to Coward, which seems astonishing in light of her intuitive hold over the necessary sophistication — Amanda, we hear, is “jagged” with the stuff — that is both elegant and eloquent at once. The fissures in her new marriage showing already (would a heroine so resistant to normalcy really want a companion as boringly smiley as Victor?), Duncan’s Amanda brings down the house locking eyes for the first time in five years with Elyot, a slow grin spreading across her face. It’s not long, however, before delight has given way to a newly awakened awareness of the damage wrought by passion, which must itself be set against the loneliness of life spent with Victor. Amanda and Elyot walk a fine and poignant line, you realize, between love and loss, their epigrammatic ease a heartbeat away from a broken heart.