The Way Of The World is, I think, a play more admired than strongly liked. William Congreve's writing shows both greater linguistic intelligence and a more active sympathy with his characters than does most Restoration comedy, with the result that one may observe (and perhaps even understand most of) the stratagems and counter-stratagems, and may feel not only for the principal lovers Mirabell and Millamant but even, in his way, for the villain of the piece Fainall, yet never quite take off into free-flying enjoyment. The laughter elicited by the play is often that kind which advertises that one appreciates a reference or a turn of phrase rather than that one is spontaneously tickled by it. The play does not, to be blunt, rollick.
Matthew Lloyd's Royal Exchange production is unimpeachable in any significant respect. Lloyd Owen's Mirabell has a semi-naturalistic, understated delivery which lends his lines an air of appealing sardonicism rather than conscious wit, especially in the excellent negotiation scene with Millamant over the conditions on which they might agree to have each other in marriage; this is not an engagingly rakish Mirabell, but at times almost a darkly scheming one. Auriol Smith (replacing an unwell Sylvia Syms) gives herself over to the unflattering coquettishness of the mutton-dressed-as-lamb Lady Wishfort, whose approval and financial endowments are at the centre of everyone's schemes. Even Tobias Menzies as the fop Witwoud is fundemantally amiable, a figure of ridicule but not of outright contempt, and in some ways the most winning character of the lot.
Paul Higgins as Fainall comes into his own when he presents his climactic set of demands to Lady Wishfort and her circle; he has been mildly splenetic hitherto, but shifts into unambiguous villain mode at this point. Caroline Langrishe's Mrs Marwood (Fainall's mistress and confederate) is more or less completely unflappable, always ready to brazen out any accusations levelled at her. The switchback of scheme against scheme here is a masterpiece of plotting. And yet, and yet, and yet... For a modern audience, some central sense of cohesion is missing. Lloyd's production does not go nearly as far as Sam Walters's version last year at Richmond's Orange Tree (in which Smith also played Wishfort), which seemed to feature actors performing in several different plays on the same stage; however, it does suggest that this slight vagueness at its core may be because, despite its superior accomplishments to most of not all of the rest of its genre, The Way Of The World simply does not exert a sufficient identity of its own.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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