Coward’s classic for the social-media age

  • Passion play: John Mitchell has adapted Noël Coward’s Private Lives for the present day (Photograph supplied)
  • Passion play: John Mitchell has adapted Noël Coward’s Private Lives for the present day
  • John Mitchell has adapted Noël Coward’s Private Lives for the present day, incorporating social media into the 1930 classic. The show opens at Daylesford Theatre on Thursday (Photograph supplied)
  • Directing the way: John Mitchell with Laurence McNaughton, who plays Elyot
  • Private Lives director John Mitchell, right, with Laurence McNaughton and Julia Pitt, a divorced couple who find out they’re staying in adjacent hotel rooms while on honeymoon with their new partners (Photograph supplied)

John Mitchell studied to become an actor, but decided he was better off camera. That decision, made years ago, has turned into a win for the Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society.

Mr Mitchell is at the helm of Private Lives, Noël Coward’s comedy that starts its run at Daylesford Theatre this week.

The director has adapted it for the present day, incorporating social media into the tale of a divorced couple who find out they are staying in adjacent rooms while honeymooning with their new spouses.

“The offer to do it was too good to be true,” said Mr Mitchell of the 1930 classic, his first theatre production in Bermuda. “I hope people will come. It’s a lot of fun and the opportunity to work with a new group of people was very exciting to me.

“It’s a great society. It’s not just amateur theatre. The set up is amazing, they have a rich history and a fantastic space to put on shows. It will be wonderful to see it come to life. The actors worked very hard and were very dedicated to it. It’s been a joy to work with them.”

As summarised by the BMDS: “Divorced couple Amanda and Elyot unknowingly book adjoining rooms while on honeymoon with their new spouses, Victor and Sybil. Realising they still have feelings for each other, Amanda and Elyot make the hasty decision to abandon Victor and Sybil and run off to Amanda’s flat in Paris.

“Despite their passion for each other, Amanda and Elyot begin to bicker again, as they had during their marriage. When the jilted spouses show up, the four must face each other, and try to figure out who is actually suited to whom. Noël Coward’s classic comedy of manners is set in today’s world of selfies and social media, where appearances can be deceiving, as very few people are completely normal, deep down in their private lives.”

A resident of Toronto, Canada, the director became involved at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, Jonathan Dunlop, who lives here.

“I knew there were a couple of theatre companies in Bermuda. He mentioned they sometimes brought in guest directors and put me in touch with Will Kempe, who had been in the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, a Gilbert & Sullivan production here,” said Mr Mitchell, one of the writers of an early version of the 2006 Broadway hit and a friend of Lisa Lambert, its Tony Award-winning lyricist.

“The connection to The Drowsy Chaperone gave me a little credibility as it were. I started talks with Robbie Godfrey [the BMDS drama chairman]. He was particularly interested in doing a show that used projection. I read many plays and one of them jumped out — Private Lives.”

Most interesting to him was how technology has changed the world since Coward wrote the three-act comedy.

“Today, nothing is really private. The idea [behind adapting the show] was to take a play about social mores in the 1930s and set it in the age of social media and the #MeToo movement.

“The modern technology and references to it we are using in the production are a way to play with that idea and have some fun with it.”

He changed his career focus while a student at Toronto’s York University.

“I got an agent and started going for auditions — which was kind of soul crushing in a way — and realised it wasn’t for me, although I loved to perform.”

Comedy was his road forward, performing as half of the duo Brock & John and then with The Second City Toronto for two years. He also partnered with a group that included high-school friends Ms Lambert, Bob Martin and Jonathan Crombie, for a series of one-act musicals that led to The Drowsy Chaperone.

“Lisa was Bob’s best man and she suggested doing Drowsy Chaperone as a wedding gift, written as a collective. We put it on and it went over like gangbusters. We remounted it, expanded it a little bit and then Bob got involved, created [the character] Man in Chair, and submitted it to the Toronto Fringe Festival. For some reason it got a write-up in Variety [the entertainment industry newspaper] and it all became serious ... we started thinking maybe this is something that has a chance.”

Ms Lambert took the reins and pushed the show forward.

“After the Toronto Fringe production I moved to the directing side and was associate director in charge of musical staging for the next two productions,” Mr Mitchell said.

“When the show moved to Los Angeles and then Broadway, there wasn’t an active role available, other than being an enthusiastic supporter. Because of my involvement with the creation of the show I continue to receive writing royalties, although no official book credit. In his acceptance speech at the Tony Awards, Bob Martin [coauthor of the show with Don McKellar], acknowledged that [it] was the collective expression of a group of people in Toronto.”

By 2015, he was making movies. He followed the romantic comedy Portrait of a Serial Monogamist with a documentary he wrote and directed with Mr Crombie, Waiting for Ishtar.

The movie stars Charles Grodin and Carol Kane, who were both involved in the 1987 film Ishtar, the box-office failure that some critics called one of the worst films ever made.

“I was a big fan of writer-director Elaine May’s work, as well as [its stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty],” Mr Mitchell said.

“The movie is about a songwriting duo who aren’t good, but don’t know it. The style of comedy, and the believably bad songs Paul Williams wrote, in character, for the duo in the film are hilarious, and were one of my big inspirations for the comedy of Brock & John.”

While looking to rent a copy of Ishtar he realised he was not the movie’s only fan.

“At the library I was told there was one VHS copy and I was put on a waiting list of 47,” he said.

“The documentary is about my attempts to track down an interview with somebody on the waiting list. It’s dedicated to my friend, Jonathan Crombie, who passed away before it was finished.”

• Private Lives opens on Thursday at 8pm at Daylesford Theatre and runs through Saturday. The show continues on July 25 and runs through Saturday, July 27. Tickets, $35, are available at and at the box office one hour before performances