Matthew Macfadyen On ... Private Lives’ Warring Lovers
After graduating from RADA, Macfadyen launched his career in theatre, including various Cheek by Jowl productions such as The School for Scandal, The Duchess of Malfi and Much Ado About Nothing (in which he played Benedick, one half of another notoriously bickering couple). His other stage credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Battle Royal, Henry IV and, most recently, The Pain and the Itch at the Royal Court.
Macfadyen has become a household name for his screen roles, most famously playing Mr Darcy in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, and Tom Quinn in the BBC television series Spooks. His other film and TV credits include Frost/Nixon, Maybe Baby, Enigma, The Reckoning, In My Father’s Den, Death at a Funeral, Incendiary, Wuthering Heights, Warriors, Perfect Strangers, The Way We Live Now, Ashes to Ashes, Little Dorrit and Russell Crowe's forthcoming film, Robin Hood, in which he plays the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Arguably Coward’s best-known play, Private Lives is frequently revived. Amongst the most recent London productions, the play was mounted as part of Hampstead Theatre’s 50th anniversary season in 2008, starring Claire Price and Jasper Britton, and at the National Theatre with Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser in 1999. Most successfully, it was last in the West End in 2001 in a multi award-winning Howard Davies production starring Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, which subsequently transferred to Broadway.
Amanda and Elyot were married and got divorced five years prior to the start of the play. When they remarry, they go with their separate partners to this hotel in the south of France, where they discover they’re staying in adjoining rooms with adjoining balconies. They end up reminiscing, realising they’ve loved each other all along, despite the bickering that broke them up, and they elope. And then mayhem ensues pretty much.
I think there’s a perception about Private Lives that it’s just this piece of fluff, but it’s so beautifully written and very perceptive about men and women – and, actually, it’s very dark. When you love someone very deeply, you know how to push the wrong buttons.
I think Amanda and Elyot are such a famous stage couple because the way their rowing sort of flares up out of nothing – going from happy and cosy to being filled with rage – is something everyone can relate to. It’s thrilling to play when it works because it feels so real. I know couples like that who are always arguing, and oddly, they’re very happy to be like that – they need that fighting and screaming, that tension. That’s one of the reasons they stay together.
More than that, Amanda and Elyot are both free spirits and they’re quite unsympathetic in some ways – certainly Elyot who can be a bit of a shit – which makes them attractive. And they’re both a bit lost. But I think they do belong together. And maybe they’ll mellow.
It’s been lovely working with Kim Cattrall, she’s been utterly delightful. She brings her natural toughness and playfulness to her part. Amanda’s very capricious, she flips back and forth, and Kim’s especially good at that. There is an age difference between us (Cattrall is 53, Macfadyen 35), but it’s not a factor at all. I always tend to play above my age, and Kim certainly doesn’t look her age so we sort of meet in the middle and it feels right.
I’m glad to be back on stage. I just love it, I’ve always loved it. It’s where I started – I never imagined I would be doing TV or film. So it’s nice to flex that muscle again because, only doing a play every couple of years, it gets underused now.
- Matthew Macfadyen was speaking to Terri Paddock
Private Lives, which co-stars Lisa Dillon and Simon Paisley Day, opened on 3 March 2010 (previews from 24 February) at the Vaudeville Theatre, where it continues until 1 May. Prior to London, it had a fortnight’s preview at the Theatre Royal Bath from 10 to 20 February.