Thursday, 15 March 2001

Design for Living, MTC, March 15, 2001

by Noel Coward
MTC at Playhouse, Mar 15 to  14 April, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Noel Coward was a prolific playwright and song-writer. His plays are stuffed with witty dialogue and smart, urbane, often glib characters. Design for Living written in 1932, is no exception.

It was controversial in its time. It is not, however, his best or funniest work. Nor does it have the poignant edge of his play, Private Lives, nor its level of incisive commentary on the immoral middle classes and their petty squabbles and concerns.

Design for Living is directed with style by Rodney Fisher at a swift pace appropriate for Coward.  It is a co-production for the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the MTC. Dale Ferguson's design is exceptionally rich. His New York apartment drew gasps of pleasure from the audience.

It focuses on three self-centred and privileged people who love each other but are careless with each other's affections and with their mutual friendships. It is social farce about love and lust in the 1930s. It may be out of date now to be horrfied at couples living together unmarried but it is still awful to watch such blatant selfishness in action.

In Act One, Gilda (Josephine Byrnes) lives in Paris with Otto (Rhys Muldoon), a young portrait painter. Their mutual friend Leo (Nathan Page) arrives and Gilda and he fly off together.

In Act Two, Otto interferes with their little love nest in London when he arrives as a successful painter. Leo meanwhile has another hit play. Gilda runs off with their older conservative friend , Ernest. (Dennis Olsen) Yes, Gilda marries him and escapes from her two lovers to live in benign boredom in New York .

Byrnes is a bright presence on stage and creates a nervy, deceitful and  immoral creature of the period. Her journey to conservatism and back again is credible.

As Ernest, Olsen creates a powerful and substantial character. Ernest is the only character who deserves our sympathy when he is dumped unceremoniously by his wife.

Muldoon gives an arch and witty portrayal of Otto . Page seems uncomfortable in the style but relaxes in the very funny drunk scene between the two men.

There is much unresolved sexual tension between all three characters. It is surprising that Fisher did not exploit the homo-erotic layers of Otto and Leo's relatiionship. It is palpable in Coward's script.

By Kate Herbert

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