FringeReview UK 2017
Nicholas Quirke’s D.A.F.T. Theatre arrives at Brighton Open Air Theatre – or to crowd acronyms, B. O. A. T. – with Restoration dramatist William Wycherley’s 1676 The Plain Dealer. Sarah Dearing sprinkles chaises-longs and sea-chests, with fantastical garb for fops set on a roughly contemporary catwalk. Phoebe Munson keeps lights and production running. Quirke’s updated text references (‘irrelevant as a UKIP MP’) involves sensibly-cut second seamen’s badinage, but otherwise it’s straight Wycherley.
It’s just what we need. Nicholas Quirke’s D.A.F.T. Theatre arrives at Brighton Open Air Theatre – or to crowd acronyms, B. O. A. T. – with Restoration dramatist William Wycherley’s 1676 The Plain Dealer. Hugely influential, it came hard on Wycherley’s other hit The Country Wife – deliciously condemned here by a hypocritical type as scandalous.
Sarah Dearing sprinkles chaises-longs and sea-chests, with fantastical garb for fops set on a roughly contemporary catwalk. Phoebe Munson keeps lights and production running. Quirke’s updated text references (‘irrelevant as a UKIP MP’) involves sensibly-cut second seamen’s badinage, but otherwise it’s straight Wycherley. Except hovering seagulls swooping for chicken legs. And a superb exit by Matthew Carrington f-ing everything then ‘Fucking interval’. At many points it’s a sparklingly-observed revival.
Quirke’s mission is to unearth lesser-known great comedies. He revived Roman Terence’s The Eunuch in 2015, for instance. But this vein’s richer, we’ve got bearings: yes fops we know from Etherege (his The Man of Mode premiered the same year), misanthropes straight out of Moliere, a Viola figure out of Twelfth Night and a mistress called Olivia, only not so dignified as Shakespeare’s and a lot more fun especially in Peta Taylor’s rumbustious rendering, reading in at short notice with such brio it’s already a compete performance. Restoration dramatists romping back to speed after twenty years’ closed theatres took from French and Italians too. Yet Wycherley’s original, more human, more acute to womens’ insecurity and the threat of male violence.
The Plain Dealer is Captain Manly, a sailor back from the Third Dutch War who like Moliere’s Misanthrope doubts the motives of everyone he meets except his mistress, Olivia, and friend, currently-absent Vernish. Manly’s a kind of Ben Jonson ‘humour’ type, curmudgeonly, railing at everyone, not sympathetic but in his truth exploding everything. Obsessed with hypocrisy, he sees it everywhere including where it isn’t and alas, blind to it in the one place he should beware.
Simon Hellyer’s stalking grump as Manly proves ideal at first, even if both the part and open air makes it tricky for him to modulate as much as he can. Still, I longed for him to bend peering down to a seagull as one at least shared the stage; he exudes that energy. Hellyer harrumphs and gesticulates with an ideally strong voice; he just lacks that fantastical delicacy even priapic rakes own, and Manly has it too.
He’s beset straight off by the fop double-act of Conor Baum’s Quentin Crisped Lord Plausible – gyrating to verbal and physical arabesques – and Crisp’s black-hat-fitting Mr Novell: Colin Elmer’s magnificently voiced hypocrite also steals the show. They inhabit their roles with period awareness and ad-libs, much in evidence, a real production strength.
It’s clear the only true friends Manly has is Matt Carrington’s Freeman, an impoverished scholar who works for him and desires to marry a rich widow, and a rather fawning sailor who’s fought on his ship but none too heroically.
The sub-plot’s a tortuous legalese as Freeman’s blunt wooing of Sharon Drains’ litigious Widow Blackacre by leading her downtrodden son Jerry astray chops energy and legalese to froth. Through Freeman Matt Beaumont’s Jerry liberates himself from carrying his mother’s law-suits and turns into a firecracker Ali G. Drains effectively conveys the Widow’s straitened gestures and hardened disappointment Blackacre quietly enjoys the idea of a blade, despite herself; the Widow turns willowy a tad late.
Carrington glows here in strong voice and arms at least as strong: in a fireman’s lift he hefts two annoying characters over his shoulder and carries them off, in the middle of a Manly speech (perhaps Hellyer could have been something else to do here, it upstages him). Carrington’s range from earnest friend to petulant wooer and exasperated fop-thrower is excellent. The hypocrisy of marrying desperately for money unsettles us now; that’s Wycherley’s fault.
Not that he’s lacking in rivals. The widow’s other old suitor, Major Oldfox, is rather luxury-casting. Seth Morgan was Prospero in Quirke’s outstanding if controversial Tempest; Morgan relishes avuncular furies and blandishments in a firm-voiced bah! of a role. Rosanna Bini takes several roles, primarily Olivia’s cousin Eliza. She has energy though like one or two others, utter clarity of diction’s essential in this theatre.
Misanthropes have blind spots, and Manly’s given his fortune to Olivia losing the other half at gaming. It’s clear to Freeman and fawning sailor that Olivia cares nothing for Manly but a lot for his fortune, and more winningly smooth young men. So when Olivia jilts Manly and secretly marries the secretly-returned Vernish, Manly rages but decides to enjoy Olivia one final time in revenge sex, since she’s taken a fancy to the smooth young pageboy sailor he’s sent as emissary – who recoils and tells all. Then again three’s fun in sending and going himself too… and bringing all the tattle of the town on a delay-timer. This leads to a scene out of Anthony Schaffer’s Black Comedy: everyone blunders in the dark and comes out with revelations.
You might guess the pageboy sailor’s really devoted Fidelia afraid to speak her love yet following him everywhere. Amy Sutton make as much as she can of a capped moustache and herringbone sweater, nimble, appealing and ardent. Manly aims to seduce Olivia by proxy as Manly takes Fidelia’s place (and Fidelia tries pulling him off Olivia). He knows Vernish too will break in. However we’ve seen Vernish already grope Fidelia by accident: he now seizes his villainous chance. Tom Dussek who multi-roles comes into his own as Vernish, voicing a stock-villainous part which yet utters truth, including the observation that people are only tricked by those they take as friends.
How does this end? Well, this being a comedy you might judge. Perhaps Quirke’s seeking Restoration peculiarly suited to B. O.A.T, and some unexpected ones too. We know Etherege, Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Congreve – whose Double Dealer was an attempt to outdo Wycherley. It’s whether these are robust enough. Edward Ravenscroft wrote several brilliant, now-obscure comedies The Careless Lovers (about an open marriage, not 1973, but 1673!) and his hit the 1682 The London Cuckolds. That tells you everything. But Quirke and D. A. F. T. will always confound expectations. Long may they do so.