Stage

Design for Living,dir Sarah Branthwaite,8 – 12 Nnovember,OFS: Noel Coward’s Design for Living caused a scandal at its 1932 premiere, with its candid view of the incestuous relationships between three sophisticated Bohemian artists in the 1930s.Sarah Branthwaite’s exciting production has a distinctly cynical edge to it – beneath the fast-moving, witty dialogue the undercurrent of desperationin the three main characters is tangible. The sexuality of the piece is even played down to focus more intently on commenting on the subtleties of each relationship. The cast rise to Coward’s challenge admirably, and Branthwaite teases out the rhythms extremely well: you are struck by the efficacy of each pause, and each change in tone and pace has a distinct purpose. The exchanges between Gilda (Charlie Covell) and Otto (Nnicholas Bishop) are particularly impressive, both able to shift subtly between levels of emotion,without ever seeming to give any of themselves away. Covell effortlessly creates character-defining moments with a mischievous smile or wave of a cigarette, and Bishop gives a deliciously flamboyant performance. The disapproving housekeeper, played with relishby Jessica Hammett, provides some hilarious moments.The drawback, as so often with such glossy, intellectual writing, is that it does tend to distance the audience (as Branthwaite says, “the audience are invited to study the lives of these characters, almost like a sociological experiment”). The problem with this is that the audience needs to be drawn in on some level, to feel linked to these characters, for the action to hold any lasting meaning. Luckily there were flashes of this in the play, notably from Jack Farthing as Leo. The part of Leo is often overplayed to get more laughs, but Farthing’s understated, often quite awkward performance is the most human of the three. The shifting dynamic of his relationship with Otto is fascinating – the suggestion of sexual attraction between them visible but not forced, and his struggle to come to terms with such a bizarre triangle is engaging and at some points quite moving.Overall, the production tends towards underplaying and tragicomedy, which often sharpens the dark humour inherent the play. If you’re wondering if you can take another play meditating profoundly on love and relationships, this, despite its age, provides a breath of fresh air.ARCHIVE: 4th week MT 2005