THEATRE: Actor pretends to be a bastard in Private Lives
Acting is a solitary exercise. There are other actors on stage with you, and an audience watching, of course, but you’re on your own – pretending.
Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which begins previews Saturday at the Citadel Theatre, circles around a broken marriage. Both Elyot and Amanda are the products of each other’s spurned love, both have moved on, and both are pretending to be something they are not. And to bring it to life on stage, Edmonton actor John Ullyatt has to pretend to be a “real bastard” in his role as Elyot.
“He’s quite violent and sadistic and all these terrible things,” Ullyatt says. “It is all covered over by a very proper and elegant upper class Englishman. That’s a pretty difficult thing to wrap your brain around as a North American, although my family was English so I’m well versed in passive aggressiveness. That training is coming in handy for me.”
According to to Ullyatt, there is a certain amount of “real life” to each character an actor pretends to be. You draw from what you know and sometimes, what you don’t like. It is like a game where you try to get what you want, or in this case, what you want to be: Embracing the negative, pretending you don’t know how bad the human animal can be. The trick in pretending to be a bastard, Ullyatt says, is that the character doesn’t usually intend to be one.
Jealousy is the emotion that drives this comedy of manners, first produced in 1930. The action starts when Elyot and Amanda encounter each other on their honeymoons with their new spouses in adjoining rooms of the same hotel.
“It’s pretty awesome in this play, because the main causes of the fights between Elyot and Amanda are all about jealousy,” Ullyatt explains. “They way they pick on each other is about that as well. As we pick on each other about past relationships it becomes obvious that we haven’t buried the hatchet about certain infidelities that we may or may not have been a party to. With these characters it is like really nasty green room chatter. Talking about how so-and-so is like this and then picking on them; acting superior. It’s delightfully nasty.”
An actor in any role has to understand where the characters are coming from, Ullyatt says.
“Once you can step back a little bit, then you can start to get a better idea about what the playwright intended as far as what the audience is getting and what story we are telling them. I like to think about that as well insofar as to ask, what is the shape of the story? What do they want to see here? What is my job in this particular scene? Is the case of my character Elyot, my job is to get thoroughly affected by my new spouse and trying to make the best of it, and at the same time she is driving me f—ing crazy.”
The nice thing about pretending is that, at the end of the day, you aren’t really a fire truck. Then again, if your pretending delves into reality, if you draw from real life, well, you are playing with fire.
Ullyatt says, “I don’t think I’m one of those actors who takes a part home with me, but after playing with these words for so long and having them whizzing around in my head, there seems to be some form of thought pattern that comes with the character. That, somehow, sort of takes over in places. In my private life, there are times when I think I’m being extremely witty and hilarious, but there is this cadence where I’m trying to get my point across which is not necessarily very pleasant. I’m not really like that, I’m not smart enough. Thank God someone wrote the words out for me.”
The omnipotent beings known as “they” say that art is a mirror to the soul. To quote Amanda, played by Diana Donnelly, “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”
One person’s normal is another person’s child running around, face painted red, trying to start fires … sorry, pretending to start fires.
Private Lives runs Feb. 2 to 24 at the Citadel’s Shoctor Theatre.