Minerva Theatre, Chichester – until 7 July 2018
Stupid, cuckholded men and duplicitous women. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up, little has changed over the centuries in the battle of the sexes. William Wycherley’s Restoration romp, The Country Wife, has been given a makeover in Jonathan Munby’s modern, monochrome production at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.
In its 17th century time, this ribald farce was considered scandalous and promptly banned. In today’s #MeToo climate, a story about a lothario seducing all and sundry behind the backs, and often in plain sight, of their husbands, barely raises a titter. Its only saving grace is that the play’s womenfolk, while still treated as chattel, are clearly a lot smarter than the men whose brains are in their trousers and frequently out of use.
There’s not a periwig or crinoline in the production and I rather like Soutra Gilmour’s 50 shades of black design. The noirish set is highlighted by a cheeky red light and everyone in the cast, with the exception of Susannah Fielding’s country wife, Margaret Pinchwife, is dressed in a selection of black costumes (Belinda Lang looks as stylish as a well-bred cougar). Poor Fielding, all wide-eyed innocence (ha!) is forced into yellow but it does highlight the naivety of her character among the sinners of London high society. The design is one of this show’s highlights. Sadly, the very wordy dialogue, delivered at quite a lick, fails to lift the comedy.
Lex Shrapnel, as superstud, Horner, is trying too hard to make lines funny when they aren’t any more. In fact, he just comes across as being sleazy. John Hodgkinson, as the deceived older husband, Pinchwife, fares better, but his shoddy and abusive treatment of his wife doesn’t stand the test of time. Horner has his doctor put the word around London that he has picked up something nasty in Paris.
As a result the city’s well-to-do husbands, thinking the rake is impotent, trust him to escort their wives, little knowing that it is just a clever seduction technique to cut a swathe through the female population.
This being updated to the 21st century, the insatiable Horner is a real party animal. There’s too much coke, booze and sex but still he wants more.
Pinchwife, himself an old whorer, has married a plain homely country wife so that there is less likelihood of her straying.
While she stays at home, keeping house, he can carry on enjoying himself in town – until he makes the mistake of bringing her for a visit and she has her head turned by the excitement of it all.
While at the theatre she comes under the gaze of Horner and is chuffed to bits to learn that she has a gentleman admirer.
However, the situation enrages her husband, who worries that he will lose her. So he locks her in the house and refuses to either let her out or receive callers.
While all this is playing out his sister, Alithea (Jo Herbert) has her own problems.
She’s due to marry the vain, foolish, incredibly stupid Sparkish (Scott Karim giving a super performance) but he pushes her, in all innocence (because that’s what mates do), towards his best pal, Harcourt, who promptly begins a campaign to wrest her away from her intended.
This merry-go-round of wooing is further complicated by the various women who come Horner’s way, including Belinda Lang’s Lady Fidget, the bored older wife of MP, Sir Jasper (Michael Elwyn).
But, coming in at 150 minutes (plus interval), the whirl of sexual liaisons – which amount to nothing more than harmless flirtations – get a bit tiresome.
There’s very little plot, no depth to what there is, none of the characters are fleshed out, and what may have passed as riotously funny way back in the 1700s, just doesn’t cut the mustard in modern comedy.
It’s very stylish to look at, features some nice, well choreographed, flourishes from Munby, but offers no substance.
Fielding has little to do but play the country bumpkin who is agog at everyone and everything.
Really only one for fans of the genre.
The Country Wife runs in the Minerva Theatre until July 7.
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