Coward's play still has much to tell us about celebrity status, sexual mores and the nature of fidelity. The complex and revolving relationships between the three conclude themselves in a highly provocative manner, flying in the face of convention and their public profile.
Burke's recent West End credits include Romeo in Romeo And Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe, The Cut at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Michael Grandage and Creditors, also at the Donmar, for which he received the Ian Charleson Award.
This is the first Noel Coward play I've ever done. I wasn’t totally familiar with Coward, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a Coward. Then I read this play and I thought it was just stunning and modern and funny and touching and beautiful, and very unsentimental as well. I think the play is still controversial. I don’t want to give away the plot, but I think if people in this day and age decided to do what the people in this play decide to do, at the end it might create less of a horrified reaction but it would still provoke a great deal of opinion, amongst anybody.
Often Coward makes other writers, like Chekhov and Strindberg look sentimental. In a way, a lot of the emotional turmoil people are going through in other plays are kind of taken apart and ripped up and thrown up in the air and taken back in again and nothing is really resolved at the end.
I think Design for Living will be very interesting for a modern audience as it goes into the elements of the relationships in a very unsentimental way and also it’s about the chaos and feeling of schizophrenia that can accompany any amorous feelings when they involve more than two people.
I think a lot of people have experienced that – if you’re in love with two people at the same time it’s a weird kind of existence. It’s very un-restful because you never know where you’re at. The play is really about dealing with that and it kind of proposes a solution at the end, which is a rather controversial one, which is why they didn’t dare open the play in the UK when it was first written. So I’m part of that triangle.
I play Otto, who’s a struggling artist at the beginning, and who then starts to do better. It’s also about the romance of being a struggling artist and that fevered restless existence that can feed a relationship, in terms of its romance. The only stability is living in a constant state of change, and actually when something begins to settle it loses its momentum. I think if people are going through a hard time financially they kind of go the extra mile with the romance, because it’s probably escapism from that, and it is the constant of that. All the relationships are kind of about the balance between those things.
It's a play about that dilemma of the abyss you have to breach between a relationship being in its honeymoon stage and getting through that whole domestic bit where it’s all about having your toothbrush in somebody else’s toothbrush cup, to getting sort of beyond that. That’s when a relationship becomes a relationship – nothing short of that really – just getting from the honeymoon period to something else that has as much vibrancy and variety.
It also gives the rehearsals a slightly different dynamic. You’re kind of checking in with people and there’s also a slight element of a ghost story in it, because it’s not just about two people who are in love with each other, it’s about three people who are in love with two people each, in their own way. There’s an element of a ghost in the room when there are just the two of them there. So that’s totally different to playing a straightforward love story. It’s as much about that person’s absence as it is about the connection between the two people in the room.
The Old Vic is fantastic. It is an amazingly beautiful space. I’m a little intimidated by the size of it actually. I love being on a set that’s so brilliantly designed because it somehow manages to make the whole thing seem intimate even in such a big space. It’s a perfect space if you have the perfect set, and we do. It is a beautiful space and I’m thrilled to be in it.
Design for Living runs from 15 September until 27 November 2010 (previews from 3 September) at the Old Vic.