National Theatre, Olivier – until 20 September 2015 (NT Live Broadcast – 3 September 2015)
SONGS, SCUFFLES, VILLAINS AND VIRTUE IN 1707
Towering staircases and sliding panels transform the big stage from tavern to genteel house, with a pleasingly inexplicable intermittent folk-band lurking on the top landing. Here for two and a half frenzied hours Simon Godwin zingily interprets George Farquar’s Restoration comedy with a cast of 21, not one part a dud. It is farce bordering on panto, edged with songs, enlivened with scuffles, glorified with random absurdities and containing a hard nugget of feminist polemic.
You get scheming London beaux chasing rich wives ,confused by equally artful Midlands villains, a churlish drunk, a daft and deadpan comedy butler (O, Pearce Quigley, what a joy you are!). There are spirited womenfolk, a bossy matriarchal herbalist, highwaymen robbers, a magnificent rumpus of a fight conducted partly in stunning 18c ladies’ underwear, a lost earldom, an amorous French officer bursting into Piaffesque song, a French priest exposed as an Irish spy, lies and redemptions and a Deus-ex-machina in a periwig . And – here’s the polemic – the conclusion, so daring in 1707, that sometimes divorce is the only thing for it.
For it is not quite your routine Restoration romp ,in which a Lady Teazle must return repentant to her husband. Susannah Fielding is Mrs Sullen, fourteen months married to a man who ignores and despises her, and values only her fortune. He comes to bed drunk, all cold feet and snoring, but she longs for his love and schemes uselessly to make him jealous by flirting with the Frenchman. With difficulty she resists the more congenial advances of the rascally beau Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild, holding a delicate balance between opportunism and growing decency). Her cry to the audience after the interval gets applause; “In England – A country whose women are its glory – must women be enslaved?”. Fielding perfectly evokes an intelligent woman in an age without rights, her misery curdling occasionally into cynicism “London is the place for managing a husband…wheedle your booby up to Town!”. At her side, the single Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is equally spirited but not yet trapped, though Samuel Barnett’s pretty, fake Lord Aimwell is moving in on her.
The delight of Godwin’s production is that it gives proper weight to the nastiness of a bad marriage while letting rip with splendid nonsense . It revels in faints and fake fits, cries of “Unlace your stays! Unbosom yourself!”, Ealing-comedy burglars, cross-wooings, double-entendres, some rich Brummie accents and wiggling wench-work, and sudden interpolations like Barbara Kirby as a dotty old countrywoman seeking herbal advice from batty Lady Bountiful – Jane Booker in unforgettable lateral-sprouting hair. But even at its most Benny-Hill moments the core problem remains: as Mrs Sullen sadly says to her spouse “Have we not been a perpetual offence to each other?”. Thus Dorinda’s happy marital conclusion must be matched by an equally happy divorce for her friend. So when they all dance farewell (including the tied-up highwaymen, jerking and squabbling) there is a real sense of release both comic and moral. And it’s a Travelex: all yours for fifteen quid if you’re quick.
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http://www.ntlive.com: broadcast live to 550 UK cinemas on 3 Sept