Martin Duncan talks Private Lives at Royal Lyceum

Emily Woodward, John Hopkins, Kirsty Besterman and Ben Deery in Private Lives. Pic: Comp
Emily Woodward, John Hopkins, Kirsty Besterman and Ben Deery in Private Lives. Pic: Comp
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HE has worked with the Pet Shop Boys, people’s choreographer Matthew Bourne and opera and theatre companies around the globe, but right now, Martin Duncan is back in the Capital, directing the Royal Lyceum’s latest production, Noel Coward’s bitter sweet romantic comedy, Private Lives, which opens on Valentine’s Day.

Duncan is one of a rare breed. Having started as an actor, he is now one of the country’s most sought-after directors, as well as being an acclaimed choreographer and composer, with everything from The Rocky Horror Show to Opera North and a Pet Shop Boys tour to his credit.

Let’s start with Rocky Horror, in which he played all-American High School boy next door, Brad Majors.

Taking a break from rehearsals Duncan recalls with great glee, “Oh my god, that was the best job I ever did as an actor. We toured Italy and I was playing Brad... aged 35!

“I remember we were being chased down the street by fans and Fellini, the great film director, came to our first night. It was amazing.”

Duncan left the spotlight of the stage behind in 1990 when he directed his first opera for Opera North and has since worked with Cologne Opera, Scottish Opera and English Touring Opera, amongs others... not forgetting the Pet Shop Boys seminal 1991 Performance Tour.

“Opportunities like that don’t happen twice,” he recalls. “It was their first ever live show. They were very shrewd. They asked David Alden and designer David Fielding from English National Opera (ENO), who were flying high at the time, to produce their show.

“Neil Tennant is so clever. He had seen some of ENO’s productions and went, ‘That’s the sort of thing we want.’ So they booked them; then I was asked to come on board as associate director. I said, ‘I would love to.’ It was fabulous.

“We had to make Chris Lowe look interesting by doing absolutely nothing.

“It was fantastic, he did absolutely nothing in 23 numbers but was riveting to watch.”

Right now, though, all Duncan’s focus is on Private Lives.

“Interestingly, as an actor I appeared in three Noel Coward plays, experience that is useful. In fact, having been an actor for 25 years has really fed into my directing because I understand why actors are having a difficult time - I’ve been there.

“I do think that some directors don’t really have a clue what it is like to actually be up there doing it.”

Coward’s 1930s comedy of manners follows the difficult relationship of divorced couple Elyot and Amanda who, while honeymooning with their new spouses, discover that they are staying in adjacent rooms at the same hotel, in the south of France.

Cue Elyot and Amanda falling in love - and in hate – all over again as their bewildered new spouses, Sibyl and Victor, try to cope.

“Sparkling wit-brilliant dialogue-one of the greatest rom-coms of all time! They don’t write them like this anymore,” smiles Duncan. “You know, working with singers on an opera is very different to working with actors. For instance, they come to the rehearsal room on day one having learnt the role - they have to, it takes them five months to learn an operatic role. So, on day one they know the material and you can start directing them.

“I was telling my lot here, that in the 1930s and certainly in Noel Coward’s day, they were all expected to know their lines by the first day. That doesn’t happen now. I said, ‘Look, if I were you, there are so many words in this play, and you have to be on top of them to make them sing, if you can, familiarise yourself with them before you come to rehearsal.’

“Well, I have to say, the majority of them did. They came having learnt it. So we have a fantastic freedom. You suddenly realise how much of the rehearsal period is taken up just with the technical feat of learning the lines.”

However, even with such a colourful CV to his credit Duncan admits, “I never thought I’d ever be asked to do a Coward play, so I jumped at it. I love his work, it is wonderful for actors and for audiences too. His plays still reverberate, they entertain and there is a truth behind them. Certainly in this one, there are quite a few poignant moments which are very moving, which really surprised me. Everybody thinks it’s just frothy fun, but suddenly there are these real moments of emotion among all the witticisms and clever words.”

Private Lives, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, 14 February-8 March, 7.45pm (matinees 2.30pm),£10-£27.50, 0131-248 4848


“I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.”

“Just say the lines and don’t trip over the furniture.”

“My body has certainly wandered a good deal, but I have an uneasy suspicion that my mind has not wandered enough.”

“I’ll go through life either first class or third, but never in second.”

“I don’t believe in astrology. The only stars I can blame for my failures are those that walk about the stage.”

“I’ve sometimes thought of marrying - and then I’ve thought again.”

“If you must have motivation, think of your paycheck on Friday.”

“I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.”

“I have always paid income tax. I object only when it reaches a stage when I am threatened with having nothing left for my old age - which is due to start next Tuesday or Wednesday.”

“The higher the building the lower the morals.”

“I’m not a heavy drinker, I can sometimes go for hours without touching a drop.”