FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Selina Cadell at the Orange Tree. Madeleine Girling’s produced a beautifully parquéd floor set. Vince Herbert provides clean even lighting. Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes feature russet and bronzed silks. Eliza Thompson elaborates on Purcell’s incidental music for the original production, and a single cello’s played by cast-member Hannah Stokely.
We’re the poorer for neglecting this onyx pearl of Restoration comedies, and its startling innovations. Having stormed the town with his strong if formulaic debut The Old Bachelor in 1693, Congreve and friends were stunned that his finer The Double Dealer bombed later that same year, despite being lavished with Purcell’s music and Mrs Bracegirdle.
Deciding to open up a wider social milieu in his 1695 smash Love for Love, then tighten plotting again in The Way of the World in 1700, Congreve never again dared the headlong velocity of a plot in real time: the conventions of twenty-four hours scrunched into under three. And all taking place in the long gallery of a country house.
That’s what the town couldn’t take, the unremitting headlong power of invention. They wanted airs, parks and boudoirs. True there’s greater maturity and powers in these two later plays re-deploying just those things, that ensure they’ll always be revived. But we should add this tight masterpiece too.
That we can now is due to the brilliance of Selina Cadell’s revival. Having provided a salt-sparkling RSC Swan Love for Love in 2015-16, Cadell brings the same qualities and two of the actors to the Orange Tree, ideal for a long gallery, boasting galleries of its own. More intimate even than the Swan with ad-libs and audience-collaring, Cadell and her ensemble ensure we’re constantly engaged.
Even in the labyrinthine plots, the fourth wall is always down. Jenny Rainsford one of the two actors from that Love for Love, launches as Lady Plyant into a fantastically convoluted speech without pausing for breath. It’s almost dizzyingly claused. The next two times confronted with the same snaky syntax, Rainsford calmly takes a knowing breath and pauses knowingly to the audience. No-one misses her reference to implausible speeches. It’s delicious, as is so much else she does.
Madeleine Girling’s set features a beautifully parquéd floor in muted violet and green lozenges, perfectly in period. There’s a chaise-long that vanishes only to return in a crucial seduction scene. Vince Herbert provides clean even lighting and one masterly spotlight. Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes feature russet and bronzed silks, green and darker muted shades. It suggests the country, not the town. Eliza Thompson elaborates on Purcell’s incidental music for the original production, and a single cello’s played by cast-member Hannah Stokely.
Before any of this gets underway the three women – Rainsford, Stokely and Zoe Waites who combines two lead roles – intone Cadell’s and Thompson’s own prologue. Though brilliantly catching Congreve’s style it takes nothing from the original prologue or epilogue, whose subjects are wholly different. Referencing Richmond, the fruit of the Orange Tree and that the plot matters not a jot, it insouciantly sets up the plot. It should be published, like Tony Harrison’s for The Recruiting Officer.
Which plot to summarise is impossible. Noting Wycherley’s 1676 Plain Dealer and its referencing of Moliere’s Misanthrope, Congreve flirts with a secular Tartuffe. Maskwell, in Edward McLiam’s portrayal of an Irish parvenu takes on the smooth menace some saw in the Irish-reared Congreve himself.
Hero Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt), about to marry Zoe Waites’ Cynthia, daughter of Sir Paul Plyant (Simon Chandler) trusts Maskwell. Mellefont’s friend Careless (Dharmesh Patel) actively distrusts Maskwell, though he’s a lone voice. Maskwell, and Mellefont even more, are loved by still-youthful Lady Touchwood – Waites again – though she’s married to Mellefont’s uncle the much older Lord Touchwood (Jonathan Coy) whose house this is. With me so far?
Mellefont having spurned Lady Touchwood’s advances she’s given herself to Maskwell and these both are sworn to revenge and mischief. Mellefont won’t marry Cynthia if they can help it.
Waites owns a fierceness as Lady Touchwood that melts with the change of a hat into Cynthia, intelligent, querulous and finally bold. Normally played by two actors, there’s only one crucial scene where both women feature strongly. Playing Cynthia behind a screen and Lady Touchwood beyond it, Waites spins round on the floor and a spotlight shafts over her to suggest her different character. The artificiality yet clarity of this is hilarious, and sets up as it begs questions of what Mellefont thinks he’s attracted to in Cynthia. Virtue and Vice contain each other. Marrying or bedding one he’s psychically shared by both. Waites is the other actor Cadell brought over from Love for Love, and she too is in her element.
Congreve’s double cleverness lies not just in deploying Maskwell as a comic Richard III, Iago, or Iachimo, who confesses his plots gleefully to us. He confesses them too to Mellefont. ‘To go naked is the best disguise’ he reminds us, and with a twist tells all the truth and is not believed. So he tells Mellefont that the passionate Lady T plots against him and that he Maskwell is to confound the match. But of course he’ll help his friend Mellefont.
He’s already laid a small snare in Rainsford’s delicious Lady Plyant, also with an old husband (the hopelessly outclassed Chandler, a wonderfully plaintive wreck) whom she will not allow to touch her, tying him down in the bed at night. Rainsford’s sprawling attempts to get horizontal with Mellefont fail, though she’s far more successful with the mutually attracted Careless. Throughout, Rainsford is a pert miracle of wit and verse delivery, the most joyous of the company.
The already-seasoned Patel as Careless is excellent at sexual embarrassment, anger and up for anything becoming a beau, even with most of his clothes off. He contrasts with Everitt’s straighter virile Mellefont whose strong baritonal presence and burnished moves contrast with Patel’s bright-toned anxieties.
In a further sub-plot Stokely’s Lady Froth – whose voice is as musical as her playing, with a beautifully detailed gradation – protests she loves her husband Paul Reid’s amiably complacent Lord Froth (he also sings rather well). They admire the buffoonish Brisk a would-be wit, Jonathan Broadbent’s profoundly silly hanger-on. Broadbent has a gift for petulant foodies amongst much other broad comedy. No wonder he takes the tiny part of chaplain SayGrace too. The miracle is Stokely’s Lady Froth wants to go star-gazing with him so she too can lie on her back.
The complex triple-spying denouement has to be seen. The company’s uniformly excellent yet the hand of Cadell is everywhere apparent. Coy and Chandler make fine blusterers and yet can turn plaintive enough for you to feel almost sorry for them. MacLaim’s Maskwell is a man of spun plates, whose attempts on Cynthia no-one in the end can quite believe. He knows the value of nothing, not even Lady Touchwood’s desire, which by now bores him.
The alchemic grace of this dark-hued, clever, claustrophobic play can perhaps only be appreciated now when noirish comedy and fiendish cleverness are celebrated in tortuous plots. It’s not that much more knotted than Love for Love, and perhaps hits a truer melancholy running underneath Congreve’s bright polish. An outstanding revival, one that allows The Double Dealer to connect with the audience, is neon-clear yet retains its dark. Cadell’s interventions – and prologue – should be standard. I doubt if there’s ever been a production as good as this.