Wigs, winks and malapropisms

The Rivals
started out as one of the greatest flops in stage history: a botched first night during which the actors forgot their lines, got lost in a confusing plot and had audiences stalking out of the Covent Garden theatre, doubtless muttering that, a century on, this Restoration comedy thing had run out of steam. So outraged was the actor playing Sir Lucius O’Trigger, after being hit by a piece of fruit thrown during the performance, that he stopped the performance, to inquire plaintively of his assailant,”Is it me or the matter?”

Fortunately, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was an accomplished comeback artist. The rewritten play was a runaway success and has remained a staple of the wigs-and-winks comedy of manners ever since. The Arcola’s version, under the assured direction of Selina Cadell, builds on this history of self-conscious flounciness with a hearty appetite for the staginess of the enjoyable palaver.

The charm of The Rivals is that the characters’ foibles combine to create misunderstanding and chaos in a way that illuminates the whims and constraints of late 18th century mores. Lydia Languish (a pneumatic blonde Jenny Rainsford), is steeped in romantic fiction, and duly fixated on marrying an impoverished chap, which inspires the aristocratic Captain Jack Absolute to masquerade as humble Ensign Beverley to win her hand. Such a match infuriates her guardian, the magnificent Mrs Malaprop — and Gemma Jones luxuriates in playing one of the most lavishly ridiculous aunts ever to grace the English stage.

Her immortal mis-speaks: “illiterate him quite from your memory” and the like are delivered with brio. But Jones also brings a mixture of vanity and underlying insecurity to the part: a comedic reprise of her starring TV role more than three decades ago in The Duchess of Duke Street. Abetted by Nicholas Le Prevost as Jack’s splenetic father, the two embody the perennial delusion that the aged can control the young, while the young take their revenge by being myopically self-obsessed — a mismatch which persists long after the Regency period had flounced its last.

The Arcola has turned itself from a small cosy local theatre to an altogether hipper one in the midst of the boho part of Hackney. Though I find the place a little too spare in its functional eco-design, it redeems itself with intelligently eclectic work and intelligent economies — some of the cast here, like the rascally valet Fag (Carl Prekopp), play so many small parts that they can make in-jokes to the audience about their switches. Scene changes between Bath’s grand interiors and its streets are dealt with by means of an increasingly disconsolate wench strewing hay around when we are taken outdoors. The audience is pulled into the action, sometimes as prop-holders and most uproariously, to assist the obligatory Restoration bumpkin, stuck in the splits position while practising his cotillion.

In some ways, Sheridan’s initial audience was not wrong: at around three hours, The Rivals is a verbose and over-intricate plot and the purpose of Sir Lucius, beyond a device for yet another layer of intrigue, is as unclear as it was on the first night in 1775. The play is saved from its own flaws by the reversal of expectations that comes when Lydia rebels against being the unwitting subject of Jack’s elaborate ruse and asserts her feminine independence.

An altogether more sobering version of female revolt is on display in the RSC’s The Witch of Edmonton. A Jacobean tragi-comedy, co-authored by Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley, the play was inspired by the story of Elizabeth Sawyer, hanged for witchcraft in Hertfordshire in 1621. Eileen Atkins plays the strange old lady, who wishes for a talking dog and is thus the perfect candidate to be singled out as a witch — a slur she combats by acting out the role, “Tis all one to be a witch as to be counted one.” Her desire for a canine companion fends off loneliness but rapidly becomes a means for settling scores. Jay Simpson, smeared with black body paint, stalks the set as the most sinister domestic stage pet since Bulgakov’s Woland showed up in Moscow.

From this point onwards, the plot is frankly lumpy, as works by committee usually are. Bewildering entanglements involving an exploitative young lover, bigamy, wife-murder and Morris dancing abound. Imagine a heady mixture of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

Director Gregory Doran and his deputy Erica Whyman want to revive more historical plays with strong parts for women, and although Atkins is on stage for a frustratingly short time, she does not disappoint: a sunken, defiant presence, glaring at an irrational, hostile world with hooded grey-green eyes — betrayed, but bewitching.

Ford is better known for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the harshest play of a cruel Jacobean bunch. The Globe’s production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Michael Longhurst, captures the fraught, illicit nature of Giovanni and Annabella’s (Max Bennett and Fiona Button) incestuous liaison and James Garnon as the duped lover. Stefano Braschi shines as the cuckolded Soranzo, who having loved “long and truly” is defeated by passion and plotting.

At its best (as in the Barbican’s Cheek by Jowl production) the play is heart-rending and disturbing. I thought the sense of an amoral void was lacking in Longhurst’s sizzling version, but his sinful, sensuous world is nonetheless mesmeric. It runs until December 7 and ticket sales are brisk. Four hundred years on, sex still sells.

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