DESIGN FOR LIVING was first performed in New York in the early 1930s -- it would never have passed the censors in England. Noel Coward wrote it for him and his friends, the American husband-wife duo, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. Coward's homosexuality was an open secret, though he was careful not to make it public, and Lunt and Fontanne had a kind of open marriage. Both had male lovers though the public saw them as an inseparable, blissfully married couple. In many ways they were. DESIGN FOR LIVING was sailing close to the wind for all three. Here is a play about two men and a woman who can't live without each other. In a more innocent time, it was possible to see the play as being about two men in love with the same woman, but it is clear from the text that this is the "three sided erotic hotch-potch" stuffy, aptly-named Ernest decries in the last act of the play. As in many Coward plays, the leading characters live a more exciting, unconventional life than the people around them. The same rules do not apply to Coward's witty characters and the voices of conventional morality are mocked pitilessly. In DESIGN FOR LIVING Leo is a fabulously successful playwright (like Coward), Otto a wealthy portrait painter and Gilda an interior decorator. Ernest, the voice of conventional morality, sells art but cannot create it.
DESIGN FOR LIVING is a tricky play to do. It's long and if one does not have the right touch, the central characters can seem smug and a bit preachy about their need to live outside of convetional morality. I have directed the play and know its perils and I have never seen a production that managed to make you care about the trio or to bring out the play's humor. The current revival at the Old Vic works brilliantly. All depends on the three leads and you really believe these three (Andrew Scott, Tom Burke, Lisa Dillon) are madly in love with each other and that they only really work as a trio. One also saw them as distinct characters with their own needs. They made an interesting physical combination. Blonde, lovely Dillon; slim, elfin Scott and leading man handsome Burke. Every scene clicked. Scott is an eccentric, slightly manic actor on stage who played against the stereotype of the louche Coward leading man. His line deliveries are always surprising but he has an impeccable sense of comedy. Burke is a less physical actor with less vocal range, but the two of them played the long drunk scene at the end of the second act like a great comedy team. Angus Wright played the stolid Ernest a little too stolidly at times, but his explosion at the end was just right for his character -- physically awkward and wanting to break something but too in love with his precious possessions to do it.
Fine direction from veteran Anthony Page and gorgeous sets. All in all, a perfect production of this tricky but wonderful play.
DESIGN FOR LIVING by Noel Coward. Directed by Anthony Page, designed by Lez Brotherson. Starring Lisa Dillon, Tom Burke and Andrew Scott. Old Vic Theatre. September 14, 2010.