Chichester's Private Lives: "We are the oldest people that have ever done this play"

Patricia Hodge was last on the Chichester Festival Theatre stage for Calendar Girls in 2008, a landmark production which had a long and happy subsequent history.

Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers
Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers

She returned to Chichester for Travels with My Aunt in 2016 and for Copenhagen in 2018 in the Minerva. Now she finally returns to the main-house – alongside Nigel Havers in Nöel Coward’s Private Lives (November 16-20).

“I have had a long and treasured history with Chichester and I am so very much looking forward to seeing you all there”, Patricia said.

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“The play is great fun, but it also has its serious moments. Ultimately it is light in tone, but the clever thing is, as we’re discovering, is that it is so beautifully observed in terms of human nature.

“It’s a play that was written 90 years ago but we are discovering it is quite extraordinarily modern in some of the things it says. It has endured.

“The real key to any drama surviving is whether or not it is a true examination of human nature and whether it is not just social commentary. With this it really says so much about the human condition.”

Private Lives was seen in the Minerva nine years ago in a production starring Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens. They did it at great pace and created comic mayhem.

Patricia is promising something rather different: “You must remember that we are the oldest people, we think, that have ever done this play.

“The next oldest would be Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and they were in their 50s. But I think this shows that it is a play relevant to everybody, definitely including older people. It is about two people that can’t live together and yet can’t live apart. It makes you realise that human nature is the same whatever your age.”

In the piece Elyot and Amanda, who were once married to each other, find themselves on honeymoon with their new partners, in the same hotel in the South of France and admiring the vista from adjoining balconies.

Their initial horror evaporates as, within no time at all, they’re sharing cocktails, cigarettes and a romantic serenade and rekindling their previous passion…

Caring nothing for scandal, they elope to Amanda’s Paris flat where their lust thaws as quickly as it had reignited and they resume the slanging match which drove them apart in the first place.

Patricia is playing Amanda in a production which should have seen the light of day a long time ago but was delayed by the pandemic.

“I agreed to do this nearly two years ago now. The photos that you can see on the posters were taken in March 2019. We were going to be doing it last autumn and then it was put back until the spring of this year and then we decided to delay the whole thing until now.

“None of us worked for a year (during the pandemic) but we were all united in it. Everybody had to suffer with it. You just had to think that there was a bigger picture going on and I just laid low for a while. I survived by doing the things everybody else did. I made sure that I kept healthy and I walked a lot and I spoke to a lot of people on Zoom.

“There was the odd thing that was happening, recordings that we could do. Everybody would be working remotely and I think I recorded a book. We were all masked up and we made it work that way. But I think the film and TV industry has done enormously well to find a way to carry on and to make sure that they keep working.

“I think film and TV are making up for lost time. There is a lot going on there. I’m not worried about that.

“But I think theatre is different. I think people are being very binary about it, which is understandable. They either take the view that they want to get back and see theatre as much as they can or they are being extremely cautious and rather sceptical about it.

“I would never say to people what they should be doing. People must always do what is right for them, but I must say that there is massive mask-wearing in the theatres. You have people walking around with signs asking people to wear masks and I think people have been very, very good.

“Once you are in your seat, you’re wearing your mask and you’re facing forwards and I do think it is safe.

“But I do think the theatre find needs to find more confidence. People need little by little to find more confidence just in coming back and those that do are finding the great joy of coming together.”