Southwark Playhouse, London – until 21 April 2018
I have history with The Country Wife. As a drama student, I learned the role of Harcourt in 24 hours when illness devastated the cast at the Nuffield Theatre Lancaster. The reviewer from the Guardian stayed only until the interval and because I had much more to do in the first half, hailed me as both the star and the saviour of the show. Which didn’t make me terribly popular with the actual leads who were only mentioned in the final sentence.
Written by William Wycherley in 1675, it’s bold and direct, satirising marriage in the style of Molière where all men are philanderers but women expected to be faithful.
The plot’s fun: you’re the randiest git in London and spread the rumour you’re impotent to encourage husbands to trust their wives in your company: in turn, the wives queue up to ride you to exhaustion but still return to the husbands who control the purse-strings.
Luke Fredericks’ production for Morphic Graffiti shifts the time to the Roaring Twenties when, emboldened by Marie Stopes’ freshly-published advice, women made more of their sexual opportunities. He dresses – or undresses – it with buff bodies, lush costumes, superb jazz-danced scene changes to ragtime versions of contemporary pop, and a gorgeous but busy lighting plot by rising sparks Sam Waddington.
Cutting and pasting of the wordy script and pointing every third laugh line with a lighting change may not have shortened The Country Wife by much, but it does shift the focus and new highlights include Daniel Cane riotous as the witless fop Sparkish, and a When Harry Met Sally solo moment for Sarah Lam as Lady Fidget which brings act one to an undeniable climax.
Less fortunately, Nancy Sullivan makes Margery an Essex Girl rather than a country wife and so seems less guileless than the character needs to be as a counterpoint to the city-dwelling ‘cuntery’ Wycherley was aiming to satirise.
This makes for a lovely, lively twenties farce, delivered with style and class, but robs the original of some of its shocking impact. If the production has a feminist point to make, here is where it is lost. Lots of rakes, then, but not much progress.