“I love you. You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me.”
Design for Living was banned in the UK for six years when first written in 1933 due to its risqué content, possibly a reaction to the sexually decisive lead female character rather than the hinted-at bisexuality and threesomes contained within, Broadway had no such issue and so it played there first instead. This production launches the Autumn/Winter season at the Old Vic and marks the first of two consecutive trips there for Lisa Dillon (she’ll be appearing in A Flea In Her Ear with Tom Hollander there next). This is a review of the second preview, so bear that in mind as I go on about how fantastic it was!
The play is set in the 1930s, following the ménage à trois between Gilda, a wealthy interior designer, playwright Leo and artist Otto as they test the boundaries of relationships in pursuing their mutual love. Over a few years and from Paris to London to New York, we see the strains of defying social conventions and loving two people equally takes their toll but finally force all three of them into deciding what they truly want.
Where Anthony Page’s production excels is in being able make explicit what Coward could only ever imply which is that this is a love triangle with three equal sides and the love between Otto and Leo is just as real and strong as it between each of them as Gilda. So the emotional depth mined here becomes ever more true as we see the struggle to come to terms with loving others the way one wants to in the face of society’s disapproval, something Mr Coward might have struggled with himself.
Andrew Scott (last seen wrapping himself around Mike Bartlett’s award-winning Cock) and Tom Burke (who I’ve only ever seen in the Brit-horror flick Donkey Punch – do not google the meaning of this term at work!) are simply sensational as Otto and Leo. Burke has his deadpan delivery down to a T and Scott is often just jaw-dropping with his hysteria and over-the-top camp mannerisms and together they have some serious chemistry. Their scene at the end of Act II where they get drunk was both funny (all the more so for them dealing admirably well with a broken sherry glass) and melancholy, but also unbearably sexy: one imagines that Mr Coward would definitely have approved of the decision to place the homoerotic subtext well and truly at the forefront, there’s no mistaking that this is a fully reciprocal ménage à trois. But they can also play dangerous and their arrival in Act III at a little social gathering reminded me of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games with its almost sadistic humour.
As the third part of the central relationship, Lisa Dillon’s Gilda suffered a little bit by comparison. Perhaps partly because her character is required to engage more with others, she doesn’t quite have the same level of innate chemistry yet with Scott and Burke as they do with each other, but she has a brilliant grasp of the rhythm of Coward’s language, her scenes with the housekeeper already crackle and by opening night, I have no doubt she’ll be strong as an ox, or was it a horse!
With these three on full wattage, there’s little opportunity for the rest of the ensemble to shine (indeed most of them only appear in one scene) but Maggie McCarthy’s maid was brilliant especially after finding out the truth of the living arrangements and Angus Wright (recognisable from a ton of things at the National) continued his strong line of character work, really coming into his own in the final scene.
The set design by Lez Brotherston is brilliant and impressively different and increasingly grandiose for each of the cities we visit. Paris is represented with a nicely cluttered attic studio; London is a sleek living room in a smart townhouse and then graduating to a fabulous palatial New York apartment. The only slightly bum note of the evening was the emergence of stagehands in front of the curtain at the intervals shifting furniture around. Not sure if this was just a preview thing, but it looked a little shabby.
Noël Coward never feels far from the stage in London, but fans of his will soon be basking in an embarrassment of riches. Celia Imrie and Nichola McAuliffe will be sharing the lead in Hay Fever in Kingston soon and we’ve a stonkingly cast Blithe Spirit to look forward to in the New Year as well. With Private Lives being such a big hit in the summer and this brilliant production which deserves to be highly successful, Coward’s legacy has never been stronger.