Theatre Madras Players’ ‘Private Lives’ explored marital relationships without doling out moral lessons

There’s a thin line between love and hate. And, at the expense of sounding like the author of sweaty saccharine paperback romances, it must be said, that line is composed of passion. While the Madras Players’ latest offering Private Lives (by Noel Coward) was sweet, sincere and funny, this is where it stumbled. There was no fire. The cast was well-rehearsed, but short on chemistry. Scenes with wickedly jagged edges were played with careful restraint. The studied banter was quietly endearing, rather than slickly scandalous.

Cowards’ glittering prose begs to be delivered with rakish nonchalance, beckoning the audience into a morass of delectable moral ambiguity. The Madras Players’ version was a little stodgy. In what was presumably an attempt to make the play easier for a local audience to identify with, they ‘Indianised’ the characters, while sticking with the foreign locations and speech patterns. The result was disorienting since Indian elements were superficial with no logical roots: Saris in the South of France. British banter with an Indian accent. And an earnest, if not completely believable, attempt at channelling the frothy glamour of swinging London, which inspired the play.

Pleasant evening

This is not to say that the production tanked. Thanks to its competent cast, it drew in the audience, and made for a pleasant enough evening. Directed by Sushmaa Ahuja, the play tackled a story pitting the good and virtuous against the cavalier and reckless via a classic romantic round robin, the kind comic directors never seem to tire of. Sundari (Shaan Katari Libby) loves Ishaan (Michael Muthu aka Mike). Ishaan loves Mondira (Ameera D’Costa). Mondira has decided to love Viraaj (Nilu). Of course it gets more complicated. Ishaan and Mondira were divorced five years ago after a tempestuous marriage. Now, they’re honeymooning in the South of France with new partners. Mike starts tamely, but gradually grows into his character over the course of the production, ultimately playing Ishaan with a charming rakishness. Ameera, in her fabulous high heels and flaming red wardrobe, teams coquettish confidence with a violent temper channelling Mondira. Their best scenes are together, especially when they sing. First performing Lynn Anderson’s ‘Rose Garden’, and later, when Mike grabs a guitar to serenade her.

There’s a lot of bickering, of course. It’s part of the package. Sometimes it’s funny, strung with cleverly intuitive lines. Sometimes it makes you feel like an uncomfortable guest at a dinner party where an annoying host and hostess are on the verge of throwing plates at each other. It’s all admittedly rather 1930s, especially the stereotype of squealing, hysterical, palpitating women driven to distraction by their strong, commanding men.

There are no moral lessons doled out. In the style of contemporary theatre, this production accepts that selfishness, cruelty and hate are inevitably entwined with love. The cast seems fairly tickled by the passport to licentiousness the play delivers, even if they do approach passionate scenes with a careful chasteness.

The play’s fun when they finally let themselves go. Singing, screaming, slapping. Yes, slapping. Mondira and Ishaan, punching, pushing and shoving each other, round and round the living room had the audience in splits.

A fairly entertaining production on the whole, even if it lacked impact. Its tragedy was not that it was bad. It was the fact that it could have been so much better.

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Shonali MuthalalyMay 11, 2012