After a Long Career, Director Richard Eyre's Private Lives Marks His First Brush With Noel Coward

Special Features   After a Long Career, Director Richard Eyre's Private Lives Marks His First Brush With Noel Coward
 
Richard Eyre, the director of Mary Poppins and a slew of serious dramas from the National Theatre, talks about the genesis of his new Broadway staging of Noel Coward's Private Lives.

Richard Eyre
Richard Eyre Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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After five Olivier Awards, three Tony nominations and even knighthood, Sir Richard Eyre is still chalking up distinctions. His latest will occur Nov. 17 when, for the first time in his life, Eyre (pronounced "air" and, personally, much preferred over "Sir Richard") will officially have two shows running simultaneously on Broadway.

His revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives with Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross logs up its first official performance at the Music Box, while his directorial collaboration with Matthew Bourne — a truly Eyre-Bourne Mary Poppins, from Disney and Cameron Mackintosh — sails serenely into its sixth year at the New Amsterdam with Performance No. 2,083.

Both shows are in sharp contrast to the half-dozen heavy-duty dramas he previously helmed on Broadway — Racing Demon, Skylight, The Judas Kiss, Amy's View, The Crucible and Vincent in Brixton. At 68, the British director shows signs of becoming lighter than, dare I say it?, Eyre.

The Mary Poppins musical experience led last spring to the West End tuner Betty Blue Eyes, a reunion of Poppins players like producer Cameron Mackintosh and songwriters George Stiles & Anthony Drewe (the team that pumped up the Sherman Brothers' original film score). Betty Blue Eyes was based on "A Private Function," Alan Bennett's hilarious original screenplay about a food-rationing community in Northern England of 1947 that raises a pig to sacrifice for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. "The show was enormously well-received by the press," Eyre recalled, "but, sadly, it didn't run more than six months, so I guess it probably won't come over to Broadway. It's a shame because it was a lovely show, very charming."

Which has now returned him to the verbal music of Noel Coward — "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is" /"Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs"/"Don't quibble, Sybil," etc. Not counting the ten plays that came over from London's Royal National Theatre from 1988 to 1997 during his reign as artistic director of that theatre company, this is Eyre's eighth time to direct on Broadway.

"I've never done a Coward play," Eyre admitted. "I'd seen many productions of Private Lives, and I have always liked the play. I've always felt that the play is more than a comedy of manners, and it's more than people just politely arguing and just politely flirting. I've always thought there was visceral, sexual energy in the play. I think it's a play that really is about the nature of sexual attraction, and so it was very important for me to cast actors who were not only attractive physically but attractive mentally, meaning actors who've a great intelligence and wit about them."

Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross in Private Lives.
photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Compared to Private Lives, the play that Cattrall and Eyre started out doing was on the dark side of the moon — namely, Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts — but that project suddenly expired, "for complicated reasons," right before rehearsals were to begin. Since the two were contractually committed to doing a play together in London's West End, they had all of one weekend to come up with an alternative. Eyre suggested Private Lives, which hadn't been done in London since Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan had such a memorable go of it a good decade before.

"We both went off to bookshops to buy a copy of Private Lives to see if it was as good as we remembered," the director said. It was. Cattrall got as far as 16 pages before she phoned him up and said, "Yeah, it's great. Let's do Private Lives."

Generally considered Coward's classic (although not by him), Private Lives tracks the brittle battle-of-the-sexes of a divorced pair who discover themselves on adjacent balconies in Deauville, awkwardly, during their respective honeymoons.

The reviews were good enough to warrant, like its predecessor, a transfer to Broadway — this, said Eyre, and "the fact that Kim is a native of New York — well, she's a resident of New York. She's actually a native of Liverpool in England — then Canada — so this is her third home. She was very, very keen to play it on Broadway."

Cattrall ("Sex and the City") paraded her Amanda at all three places she calls home, fine-tuning casting as she went along. She traded in her ex, the English Elyot (Michael Macfadyen), for a Canadian one (Gross of "Slings & Arrows" and "Due South" fame), and Anna Madeley came aboard as well as her romantic rival, the priggish Sybil. Simon Paisley Day as her legal husband, Victor, and Caroline Lena Olsson as her French maid, Louise, have gone the whole distance from the London production in 2010 to Broadway. Cattrall's Amanda will probably come as a jolting surprise to many who have been conditioned to her Samantha Jones by six seasons and two features of "Sex and the City." That was a Brit ? "Yes, I know," Eyre acknowledged, then added as an after-thought, "but she has a very convincing British accent in the play."

He admitted Samantha may be on a different planet than Amanda, but there are areas where they come together: "They have in common feistiness and intelligence."

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