Farce at Full Tilt

She Stoops to Conquer at the NT is so unsubtle as to be OTT—like many of the National’s comedies

Anne McElvoy

How broad can the National Theatre’s comedy go? A country mile judging by its rollicking production of Goldsmith’s comedy of errors, She Stoops To Conquer, which takes the great satire of 18th-century class divides and country manners and turns it into gurning, pantoesque fun. Sometimes.

My inner churl is beginning to revolt against the uniform approach the National brings to most comedy it touches, from One Man, Two Guvnors to The Comedy of Errors and now Goldsmith’s work which, at its best, balances observations about the town-country divide and luckless fortune-hunters with belly-laughs and jolly confusions. I wonder if there isn’t a smidgen of audience distrust here: a fear that we mustn’t be allowed to muse or reflect as we watch, but need the relentless spur of the big laugh to keep us in our seats.

Marlow (Harry Hadden-Paton), a man who can only conquer his social and other inhibitions with lower-class wenches, is due to woo an heiress. Fortunately for him, he is about to mistake his intended, feisty Kate (Katherine Kelly), for a barmaid, having first convinced himself that her father’s shabby country house is an inn. Everything that might go wrong in the space of a few hours then does.

With John Heffernan as his mate Hastings, the two young bloods do bear a painful resemblance to David Cameron and George Osborne before they de-poshed themselves. What goes amiss, when classic comedies are directed as full-tilt farce, however, are the finer-grained observations, like Goldsmith’s awareness of the cutting edge of snobbery and the way that sexual mores are intertwined with status. So Marlow denounces hypocrisy prudishly, when he thinks Kate is a rich man’s daughter, only to leap on her like a satyr when he believes her to be a servant. There is more of a wincing quality to Goldsmith’s writing than this giggly approach and Jamie Lloyd’s breakneck direction allow to shine through.

An awful lot of emphasis is placed on Sophie Thompson’s appearances as the frustrated rural diva Mrs Hardcastle, who is a showstopper of a matron. Like waiting for Mrs Slocombe to appear in Are You Being Served?, it’s hard to care about the rest of the action when she’s not on stage. Thompson’s la-di-da pronunciation veers between Ireland and Paris with a flicker of mid-period Mrs Thatcher thrown in. “Tis the far-shion,” she confides to a bemused Marlow, fittingly for a woman with what Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) would call a “superfluity of silk” around her person.

 As Tony Lumpkin, the amiable waster on whose exact age the nifty plot resolution turns, David Fynn excels, stroking a rigidly dead rabbit to spook the urban visitors, chewing on a chicken bone in the drawing room and generally behaving badly, while being a thoroughly good egg. Alas, this part, which should be a comic foil to the more stuck-up characters, gets a bit lost when everyone else has their foot on the accelerator.

From the comic to the absurd, but not for laughs: the Hampstead Theatre stages The Trial of Ubu, based on Ubu Roi, the early absurdist drama by Alfred Jarry about a ludicrous but terrifying despot. This reinterpretation is written by Simon Stephens and directed by Katie Mitchell, both of whom face a major hurdle in revisiting a play and a character few in the audience know (not even in Hampstead). 

Things get off to an engaging start with marionettes reenacting the original Ubu story in a box halfway up a wall. This parts, in a nifty design by Lizzie Clachan, to reveal another box, inhabited by two interpreters at the trial of a mass-murderer, trapped in uncosy proximity to the defendant in a war-crimes case that never seems to get anywhere. 

Ubu is Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, Robert Mugabe, Colonel Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad all rolled into one ghastly stream of murderous consciousness: shifting blame, undermining truth and turning on his associates and co-culprit wife. Although the play sets out to examine the elusive nature of justice and its shaky foundations in international law, it is a lot better at dealing with the impossibility of finding a formal language which can deal with the worst in mankind.

Nikki Amuka-Bird and Kate Duchêne have demanding parts as the interpreters, lagging fractionally behind ordinary speech rhythms, a technique which lends the play an alienated, syncopated quality. Mitchell’s direction is assured but a bit cold, and the argumentative heart of the play is weak. Ubu, whether as a puppet or as played here as a death-mask figure by Paul McCleary, remains an unsettling eternal villain, but I can’t shake off the thought that this is a radio play which got too big for its boots

Last word goes to the Arcola in Dalston, one of the most consistently stimulating small venues in London. Now it has a new building in Ashwin Street, described as “carbon neutral” and thus so cold when I visited to see Max Frisch’s Count Oederland that it gave fresh meaning to the theatre of cruelty. Frisch’s acidic take on a postwar Swiss dystopia is the kind of play Mehmet Ergen, the Arcola’s director, selects so well. His repertoire combines recently forgotten European works with new writing and stage traditions as diverse as those from his native Turkey, Germany, post-Cold War eastern Europe and Africa. There’s Dalstonian grit too, so this month you could try The Pitchfork Disney, about druggy, traumatised bedsit dwellers whose parents have been murdered. What’s not to like? 

I’ll plump instead for Purge, adapted from Sofi Oksanen’s stirring novel about Estonia’s Nazi and Soviet occupations and their tendrils in the present. Do check out the plucky new Arcola: all you need to survive is a plastic beaker of Merlot and a tartan rug.

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