Whigs, wigs and Generation Z

A Congreve classic revival and a new play tackle societal mores and the battle of the sexes 200 years apart

Anne McElvoy

Lady Wishfort aligns herself on the sofa: Haydn Gwynne in “The Way of the World” at the Donmar Warehouse (©Johan Persson)

The Way of the World
is a glittering panorama of easy sex, fickle materialism and suave appearances hiding insecurities and downright malice. They combine to make a play written in 1700 feel spot-on for the era of the social media take-down and perma-pouting selfie.

Yet Congreve’s masterpiece is firmly rooted in its history, brimming with faith in Williamite-Whig progress after the accession of William of Orange and swipes at the selfish rakes that collectively bear a resemblance to the ousted male Stuarts.
James MacDonald embraces with gusto the play’s fast-paced rattle of brittle repartee at the Donmar. “Never was any prose so quick,” marvelled Virgina Woolf. And rarely has an audience had to deal with such a switchback plot and spiders’ web of characters as in a play which offers us the description of a drop-in character from the sticks, “He is  half-brother to this Witwoud by a former wife, who was sister to my Lady Wishfort, my wife’s mother.”

We begin with Fainall (a sour Tom Mison), a rake burdened with an unhappy marriage, a scheming mistress and a harridan mother-in-law, wryly surveying the marital intrigues of coffeehouse London. Mirabell (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is a semi-reformed libertine with his eye on Millamant (Justine Mitchell), a belle with a tart tongue and a determination to keep a true heart in a world of falsehoods.

But the comic mainstay of the multiple intrigues is the ratafia-addled Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne), falling for a plot to marry a fictitious nobleman, really Waitwell, a servant awaiting financial reward (Alex Beckett). “I look like an old peeled wall,” sighs Her Ladyship, surveying her cracking maquillage. Deciding which lines to punch home from the verbal feast Congreve offers is hard for modern actors, but Gwynne has the comic experience to deliver some gorgeous moments of physical comedy and a case of best supporting sofa, as la Wishfort tries to align herself alluringly with her day-bed and ends up, rump in the air, before declaring, “Nothing is more alluring than a levee in some confusion.”

There’s pathos here too at two levels: Congreve was remarkably progressive about the great marriage contract between the play’s lovers, Millamant and Mirabell, but even his affection for the deluded Lady Wishfort comes with the assumption that desire in a woman of 55 is warped, whereas a rake can keep on rollicking as long as he will.

Hashtag Me Too, I say.

Real-life tragedy  has, very sadly, overshadowed this comedy of manners. Alex Beckett, playing Waitwell (readers may know him as one of the hapless apparatchiks in the BBC comedy W1A) died unexpectedly at the age of 35, only a week into the play’s run at the Donmar. As the tricksy servant masquerading as a nobleman, Beckett had brought a just measure of slapstick and cunning to a small but rich character part.

A 100-watt performance too from a young actor,  Fisayo Akinade, as Witwoud,  one of the fops teetering under the weight of his overspun epigrams. These days, he’d be a judge on Strictly Come Dancing.

If  MacDonald has not spared audiences by leaving the play at virtually full length (three hours) he has given one of the great comic texts of the Restoration a meticulous outing.

I liked Anna Fleischle’s design of a townhouse that seems to fall apart and be rebuilt ever more crazily before our eyes as the action intensifies. Costumes that look like a mix of Vivienne Westwood and Topshop gaudiness add visual humour.

It took me a while to settle to Millamant, whom Mitchell plays at the full end of sharp sarkiness and a confrontational candour. We lose something of the coquettishness that has earned her mille amants, and Streatfeild is a judicious, urbane but not devastating Mirabell. All’s one for that, as the street slang of 1700 had it. This romp in the wake of the Glorious Revolution still gleams.

The ways of the world in 2017, from the perspective of Generation Z (being the most recent crop of millennials), get unsparing treatment at the Almeida from Ella Hickson, currently the lead candidate in the “voice of a generation” sweepstakes, after the success of her first play Oil.  Given that Hickson’s themes are anti-capitalism, patriarchy (not in favour thereof) and the generally put-upon status of being young, you might fear the worst. But The Writer  has attracted  the talented quartet of Sam West, Romola Garai, Michael Gould and Lara Rossi to an exploration of the frustrations of a writer (eponymous but in a post-modern way universal), who is chafing at the constraints of  theatre, male directors and the dreaded free market. Some of this sounds like a seminar at a second-tier university, underpinned by the Corbynite mood of oppositional pique. But as Hickson delivers loosely-stitched, interlinked scenarios, she sets thoughts whirring. I warmed to the face-off between Rossi as a dissatisfied theatregoer, and West, playing a half-smug, half liberal-guilty artistic director, about roles for women and his habit of propositioning young actresses.

We move on to a disastrous evening featuring sex on a plastic-covered sofa (don’t try this at home, whatever your generation) and a moment, nicely captured by Garai and West, in which the failure of a celebratory evening meal betokens the end of a relationship as the characters realise their aspirations no longer align. If, politically, it feels like a Magimix muddle (to the question “What are you against?” the answer seems to be the old quip, “What have you got?”), Hickson’s sharpest insights are on the slide of an alternative relationship  into misunderstanding. We finish with an awkward lesbian couple, grappling for  control and falling into habits of power and behaviour akin to those they start out rejecting.

The Writer is a boney, sometimes uneven offering. But it treats themes that new audiences will want to ponder and makes theatre out of arguments usually held offstage, right in front of us. If it doesn’t “change the shape of the world”, as one character puts it, Hickson might reflect that predecessors such as  Georg Büchner and Bertolt Brecht had a not-dissimilar early appetite for the “awe and blood” demanded here. So much upheaval — and nothing completely new in the ways of the world.

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