Private Lives a timeless comedy

Noel Coward famously wrote Private Lives in four days while staying in Shanghai and feeling the effects of the flu.

More than 80 years later, it's still as fresh and as risque as ever, and still as entertaining, according to director Ralph Myers.

"It's been really lovely to do a comedy," Myers says.

"We spend so much time making such serious theatre, but this is a play that is uproarious. I think the audience likes that."

The play opens to show neighbouring hotel balconies on which step out first a man, and then a woman. Both are on honeymoon.

It quickly becomes clear that they have been married, now divorced, but they discover that their attraction is still very much alive.

Themes of sexual promiscuity outside marriage attracted the attention of British censors when the comedy of manners first appeared in 1930.

Coward made life easy for directors by including the words on the title page, "Setting: the present", thus eliminating any temptation to do a period piece.

It's a temptation that Myers found easy to resist.

"Setting it in the 1930s would have just set an un-useful distance between the play and the audience," he says.

The play is anything but a historic relic. "I think great plays are about something fundamental in the human condition," Myers says.

"Despite being very funny, there is a sense of people trying to live life in a certain way, trying to be happy.

"Coward has accrued this dust of acceptability, but it's actually a radical play about how you have to disregard the expectations that society has for you."

As well as including one of Coward's best-known songs, Some Day I'll Find You, it also has some of his best known lines: "Let's be superficial and pity the poor philosophers," says Elyot, the leading male character.

"Let's blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party as much as we can, like very small, quite idiotic school children."

Myers calls the play "a gem" and says Coward made the director's job easier by writing a play that required no cuts or changes.

"The trick of being a good director is choosing the right project, choosing the right cast and then not getting in the way.

"The most critical thing is that it is entertaining ... any piece of art that sets out to educate is deadly. Audiences are smarter than that."

The play is coming to Wollongong tomorrow.

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