I must confess that I am developing a deep fondness for eavesdropping on fellow audience members; they can be at least as enlightening as they are entertaining. The A-level students on the Tube back from Richmond, for instance, who were discussing Sam Walters's production of The Way Of The World solely in terms of the characters' colour-coded costumes (identical bodices for the women, closely similar coats for the men): "...yeah, she was the light pink one... Fainall was black..." It sounded as if they were talking about Reservoir Fops.
The rainbow threads (on a white stage with nothing more than a few quasi-Shaker chairs) are one way in which Walters tries to "wire up" Congreve's Restoration comedy; he also has the characters introduce themselves at the beginning, although it may be paradoxically more difficult to digest a dozen characters at once than to assimilate the stratagems and counter-stratagems as they arise naturally. The most glaring contradiction, though, arises from the Orange Tree's very form: Restoration comedy almost invariably demands a blatantly artificial playing style, whilst staging in the round as here, with no spectator more than two rows away from the stage, supplies an intimacy which might as well have been designed to explode such artifice.
The practical upshot of this is that, too often, actors find themselves being bounced into a naturalism inimical both to their characters and their instincts as performers. Emma Gregory's Mrs Marwood, for example, comes over less as a Restoration schemer than a cousin to Lady Macbeth, and Stuart Fox as Fainall – "The only good one in it," according to one of the teenagers on the Tube – turns in a powerful performance, but one as a Jacobean malcontent, as if he has taken the wrong turning backstage on his way to a John Webster play. Jeremy Crutchley's suavity as Mirabell and Amanda Royle's self-possession as his beloved Millamant are unable to bridge the gap between such genuinely unpleasant villainy and the ineradicable humour of, say, the preening, middle-aged delusion of Auriol Smith's Lady Wishfort or David Timson's delightful turn as the token bumpkin, Sir Wilfull (which draws the only spontaneous applause of the evening for his drunk scene). With so many different performance registers jangling against one another, the climactic confrontations feel, bizarrely, more like Pirandello than Congreve – not so much The Way Of The World as The Rules Of The Game. Those teenagers afterwards had no idea what they were going to write in their essays, and I must say I sympathise with them. This is a strange beast altogether.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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