Private Lives / Much Ado About Nothing, Theatre Royal, Bath

Bickering as an art form
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The Independent Culture

But there'd be no danger of these central duos forming a quartet of mutual admiration. In defying knee-jerk prejudices, Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick help to bring fashionable, misogynist Messina back to its senses and restore a kind of harmony. By contrast, Noël Coward's Elyot and Amanda - the divorced pair who find themselves on adjacent hotel balconies on their second honeymoons - have about as strong a sense of public duty as spoilt infants. Their squabbling is contagious.

Thea Sharrock's elegant, shapely staging of Private Lives beautifully points up all the piquant symmetries in the piece and makes you marvel anew at its formal perfection. There has been a recent fashion for productions that have highlighted the Strindbergian violence simmering beneath Elyot and Amanda's love-hate relationship. That's not the case here. Greta Scacchi and Michael Siberry both exude the right glamorous irresponsibility, even if the latter's grizzled Elyot seems to be developing his own form of amused Bohemian bufferish-ness, and even if Scacchi's Amanda isn't always as unapologetically headstrong as she might be.

The rough stuff may look a bit forced, but what they do convey admirably - particularly in the well-paced middle scene in a Cubist-style Parisian apartment - are the couple's soulmate raunchiness and the way that they have raised bickering to an irritatingly self-conscious art form.

Olivia Darnley is spot-on as a squeaky, formidable Sibyl (when Amanda sighs, "Heaven preserve me from nice women", she delivers the response, "Your own reputation should do that," with lethal aplomb). Best of all is Charles Edwards, who is deliciously funny as stuffy Victor, sipping cocktails as though they were poison and launching into flurries of facial tics and spasms as the full liabilities of misguided matrimony dawn upon him.

Edwards is excellent, too, as Don Pedro, the Prince who arrives in Messina at the head of his demobbed regiment, in Hall's graceful Regency-period production of Much Ado. It's through this character that Hall adroitly manages our response to the militaristic, male ethos that results in the slandering of an innocent bride on which the play turns. Edwards's Pedro has a desperate, wild-eyed demeanour; his wooing on behalf of Claudio carries a homoerotic edge; it's as though he can't quite adjust to the world of peacetime and women. Indeed, Hall makes him cut as lonely a figure at the end as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.

This closed-off, clubby world thinks nothing of publicly humiliating a woman on suspect evidence, and Philip Voss chills the blood with the venomous histrionics of her self-regarding father.

The situation brings out the best in the couple, who have been hitherto patronised as oddballs. Janie Dee's enchanting Beatrice and Aden Gillet's winning Benedick could perhaps be allowed to show a little more of the crankiness that leaves these characters at risk of being left for ever on the shelf. But they are both splendid in the scenes where they are gulled by their friends into overhearing uncomfortable home truths - Gillet furiously curled up under a stone seat andJanie Dee registering, with quiet pensiveness and pain, the troubling details of how she is regarded. You feel that here is a woman who could have given good sisterly advice to Elizabeth Bennet.

The puzzle is why Hall did not bind the plays together further by having the central couples played by the same pairs of actors.

To 6 August (01225 448844)

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