After Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin’s critically acclaimed production of Amadeus this past season, he returns to his artistic home at CST to direct the Theater’s s first play by Noël Coward. Here he explains some of his thoughts about the play and the decision to stage it this season on CST’s mainstage.
CST: What draws you to Noël Coward and to this play in particular?
GG: One of the reasons I love plays like Private Lives, and those of Sondheim—and ultimately Shakespeare—is because the characters have a verbal dexterity that I lack—but I love living in it, and I think I become better with language being around them. The first time I saw Private Lives was at the Shubert, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. What I remember most was that I saw the play through a particular filter, projecting the stars’ not-so-private lives on to Coward’s characters. But this script stands on its own and is Coward at the top of his game—in wit, intelligence and the sparkle of the language. Coward requires the textual discipline that you attend to Shakespeare. It’s a heightened reality, centered in a powerful emotional universe.
CST: What was involved in the decision to include Coward in our repertory?
GG: The decision came out of our artistic team’s discussions of plays that we felt lent themselves to our theater’s intimate space—and Coward, in fact, subtitles his play, “An Intimate Comedy.” We are all voyeurs. We are the walls. I believe that Coward was, as well. As the audience, we’re privileged to enter into these intensely private interactions, and our space here will serve to heighten that experience.
CST: What’s involved scenically in bringing this play to our stage?
GG: Private Lives is generally staged as a proscenium show—two terraces situated side by side and actors positioned for minutes on end, engaged in verbal warfare. We began to imagine a theater in the round, and a story surrounded by its audience. Then we put the circular deck on a very, very slow revolve so that the audience looks into this private world from all sides. The revolving stage reflects for me the cyclical way the play works—and its forever-changing landscape caused by the turbulence.
CST: How would you wish the audience to respond to the play’s intimacy?
GG: This play takes on questions of marriage and relationship, but it bubbles in such a way that you should also have a grand time in the theater. What I hope will happen is that you have the most wonderful time for two hours, then get in the car and go, “Whoa! What was I laughing at? That really is unfortunately very true.”
CST: How have you come to understand the comedy, farce and pathos of this piece?
GG: There’s pain behind the comedy—pain is the root of comedy. Amanda and Elyot live in the moment, existing in a glorious improvisation. In a moment of intense risk and passion, they decide to run away together and try it again. What’s a definition of insanity?—doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This play explores that particular kind of insanity.
CST: The insanity of love?
GG: We always do plays here at CST, it seems to me, where the struggle and the incredible pain and joy surrounding love are at the center. This play is a love story. It’s about a very complex couple. I’m hoping that our production, while honoring Coward’s spirit and the language, will be rooted in the play’s essential truths. These are relationships he knows, and he’s writing from inside them. Edward Albee once said he was influenced by this play when he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as was Tom Stoppard in his play, The Real Thing. I hope our audiences will discover an essential play about love, marriage and, possibly, forgiveness.
Watch a video of Director Gary Griffin discussing his vision for Private Lives
Explore Private Lives and learn more about the production.