FringeReview UK 2018
Director Luke Fredericks syncopates the periods deliciously in Southwark Playhouse’s Large Studio in a classic half-octagon shape. Heather Douglas’ movement is the driver to this jazzy update, with Stewart Charlesworth’s design and costume quoting neo-Palladian pillars as if we’re in country houses, Savoy clubs or a Burlington Arcade gentleman’s outfitters. The set’s simple enough with screens and tables flipped on and off in the Southwark Large. Sam Waddington’s lighting opts for glare, shadow and disco-sharp spotlighting on occasion. Neil Rigg’s sound is frequently inspired.
All Mr Horner’s china gets crashed. And the country wife’s squirrel gets messy. No wonder The Country Wife got banned. With Chichester’s more in-period version imminent, it’s a blast to see Morphic Graffiti’s update in their revival of Wycherley’s ever-amber, dangerous comedy thrust into the 1920s. Both then and in 1675, the country was in hedonistic reaction to war and puritanism, though in very different ways.
Nevertheless, for 170 years, the play was banned and it’s hardly a coincidence that 1924 saw the first performance of this unbowdlerized masterpiece (by Garrick, to keep it on the stage) since 1753.
Director Luke Fredericks syncopates the periods deliciously in Southwark Playhouse’s Large Studio in a classic half-octagon shape. It’s a production that scintillates from the outset with Mabel Clements shimmying to open and close proceedings, adding a sassy sparkle to each scene she’s in. Every peacocking about, every spark of wild partying, even Firbankian hint of homoeroticism is pointed up. Heather Douglas’ movement is the driver to this jazzy update, with Stewart Charlesworth’s design and costume quoting neo-Palladian pillars as if we’re in country houses, Savoy clubs or a Burlington Arcade gentleman’s outfitters.
That’s simply effected with a central image replaced for each scene: Tamara de Lempika’s fleshly cubism does memorably for Horner’s etchings as it were and various less eroticised images for a gym scene. The set’s simple enough with screens and tables flipped on and off in the Southwark Large. Sam Waddington’s lighting opts for glare, shadow and disco-sharp spotlighting on occasion.
Charlesworth’s costumes from fashion-plate Alithea to frumpy-country Margery through all the beaux and back through Lady Fidget, express their characters too: whether quoting Restoration, 1920s or contemporary, they blend in like the eyes of peacocks.
Neil Rigg’s sound is frequently inspired – more on that later – though his intro of period pieces gets progressively weirder. It starts with early Purcell sounding like John Jenkins, then back a generation to Thomas Tomkins. But what on earth is William Byrd from the 1580s doing? It suggests an antique patina to Restoration music that wasn’t there: it was far breezier. Luckily in two versions of ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ (one distinctly 1920s) and so much else Rigg’s sound works very breezily indeed: except the volume. Like several productions recently, it’s the wrong side of blast.
Eddie Eyre’s Harry Horner has put it out he’s no longer horny: France has rendered him impotent. Every male feels comfortable leaving a potentially frisky wife with him whilst they divert to clubs and other pleasures, perhaps other wives, especially as Horner seems so misogynistic now he’s incapable. All depends on complicity, when the women discover the stud’s rampantly still up for it.
Meanwhile a near-retired Jack Pinchwife (the excellently watchful Richard Clews, more curmudgeon than capon or caperer) has taken retiring country girl Margery to wife, convinced Margery will know nothing of city lechery. And he does his best to lock her up too. In another twist he’s the only one, being away, not to have heard of Horner’s malaise and suspects rightly that he can’t let Margery near the maimed debauchee. Nancy Sullivan’s provincial rather than rustic Margery though, is as lustful as any other woman, especially married against her will to such an ancient lover. Fredericks suggests she married for a passport to the city but the 1670s enforcement works better.
Crucially though Margery lacks the city’s unspoken discretion. That’s the crisis on which the whole play rests. Blow that, as it were and many women as well as Horner get blown out of their reputations.
It’s a dangerous theme for the 1670s and Wycherley echoes a the period’s darling philosopher. Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 Leviathan justified absolute rule, holding that ‘life is nasty brutish and short’ (Hobbes lived to ninety-one) and that if desires were enacted openly there’s be anarchy and… civil war. The Restoration’s permissiveness rested on a French veneer of niceties and Wycherley’s comedy skirts terror and mayhem by artfully inverting Hobbes in a purely sexual sphere.
So going upstairs to see Mr Horner’s china (it seems to get smashed an awful lot offstage) is a female ritual interrupted by Horner’s noticing Margery, then at a play where her husband’s dressed her as her brother. It paradoxically allows Horner to make love to her as if she were a young man on whom kisses could be showered innocently. Sullivan throughout develops her role from her seemingly echt-Essex, and from the letter scene where she flashes ire and desire, she’s hotter and hotter. When Horner reads her letter with its memorable ‘he’ll kill my squirrel’ it’s underlined here by some of the clever ad-libs Fredericks has added: ‘’Kill my squirrel? That’s messy’ as Dorilant, Horner’s friend quips.
Margery’s other transgression – for a married woman – is falling in love, something only the unmarried chaste Alithea’s allowed. Sullivan exudes girlish infatuation, and some of Margery’s guileless tenderness. You wonder what will become of her.
It’s a dazzling plot made even more attractive by strong subplots. Daniel Cane’s Sparkish, a raffish dazzle of projection and camp turnabout, is affianced to society hostess Alithea, Siubhan Harrison’s resonant and deeply nuanced performance of the most sophisticated fashionable woman who follows her heart. She’s unmarried and convention dictates she can’t have affairs, but in any case she’s already sincerely wayward. Fredericks nicely points up why the foppish Sparkish isn’t really enamoured with Alithea, but more bothered with his social impact. It’s Leo Staar’s fine Frank Harcourt who truly courts Alithea’s feelings and visa versa. The problem is, he’s trying to speak for the diffident Sparkish. So in doing this, to Sparkish’s satisfaction, he courts Alithea in front of his unwitting rival with the eloquence born of real passion.
Joshua Hill’s Dorliant provides adroit and timely two-way entertainment as another sparky addition: as Horner’s foil and confidant – scenes where he’s exposed from listening abound as with others – satisfying Clements loudly at the outset and – you’ll have to see at the end yourself.
It’s the Fidgets though who ground the capering, Sam Graham’s worldly Sir Jasper complacently surrendering Sarah Lam’s Lady Fidget to Horner, doubtless enjoining her to be handled like porcelain and she is. The great scene where Verdi’s Champagne Aria form La Traviata plays to Lady Fidget being given invisible head from under a tea table and become increasingly orgasmic is the production’s most delectable set scene. Champagne or champagne tea – we’ll have what she’s having. Lam’s worldly vigour and sexily strong projection gives Lady Fidget an oomph and authority to overmatch Grahams’ wonderfully gravelly resonance. Clements, as indicated, is more than an adornment in her two roles as niece Dainty Fidget and maid Lucy, ideal too in her adroitness for opening and closing proceedings.
Eyre’s slightly knucklish Horner is all sex, less elegance than you’d expect. If you might miss the crystalline command of an ideal Horner he provides a seething and slightly dangerous, even callous drive, quite close to Wycherley’s anarchical warnings. He suggests to he’s somehow gate-crashed a party of slightly snobbier debutantes and will smash his way through the lot. That’s a pretty good premise to hang this dazzling revival on. If you don’t know the finale, with its superb resolution, this production is a memorable way in, with its clarity, its comedy and its last dangerous kiss. Stunning. Do see it.