Henry Fielding's first literary career, as a playwright, is often forgotten; the author of Tom Jones turned to novel-writing in frustration when the Licensing Act of 1737 introduced theatrical censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's office. Paul Godfrey's adaptation of Fielding's 1734 play The Modern Husband – which portrays the financial by-products of extra-marital nookie as a kind of grey economy – is a less than rumbustious affair, and Nick Philippou's production for the Actors Touring Company feeds the play unwisely through a coarse filter of post-modern posing.
The programme's elevated talk about reversals of power and gender relations is largely grounded in the common trope of husbands (in this case Messrs Modern and Bellamant) behaving compliantly towards their capricious wives. Any dramatic subversion arises less from the sexual than the monetary aspect, as husbands (knowingly or not) find themselves bankrolled by income from their wives' amours. In a cleverly contrived chain of events, Bellamant realises with shock that the banknote he has begged from his wife to give to his mistress Mrs Modern is the same one he had already given her earlier that day; it has made its way back home via the unctuous Lothario Lord Richly, a former lover of Mrs Modern now setting to work on Mrs Bellamant.
This Gordian knot of intrigues is the sole plot-strand of Godfrey's slimmed-down version, and whilst it has serious points to make it must rely on the momentum of affairs and counter-affairs to carry those deeper concerns. Unfortunately, director Philippou goes for style rather than energy. His taste for a greater or lesser degree of artificiality can work surprisingly well given the right vehicle (such as, for instance, ATC's 1994 production of Euripides' Ion), but here he gets carried away with imposing on the play a late 20th-century interpretation of 18th-century polish.
Thus, Gerrard McArthur is given to uttering Lord Richly's lines. Terribly. Slowly. And. Crisply. – giving him the air of Charles Gray playing a villain in The Avengers; Shelley King's Mrs Modern is likewise big on physical gestures, which she makes with the deliberation of a Burmese temple dancer. Only the Bellamants escape such an inch-thick veneer, possibly because at bottom they are sincere figures (although Mr B – Richard Cant – is "playing away"), and even they are called upon periodically to deliver sententious aphorisms with a full sense of their weight.
Kathy Strachan's design matches the playing style: period-ish costumes and furniture with added "po-mo" touches, such as slide projection and rotating white-lit doorways, that tend to niggle. The production as a whole looks great, but in sidestepping so deliberately from a straightforward presentation of the play ATC have disconnected themselves from the very dramatic and thematic elements that they were attempting to highlight.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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