FringeReview UK 2018
Congreve’s final play is directed by James MacDonald with Anan Fleischle’s seductive set based on parqué flooring. Peter Mumford’s lighting plays evenly on what’s mostly interiors, and Ma Pappenheims’s sound and composition floods nightingales, horses and a few Purcell Fantasias as well as a snatch of Couperin. This review was written after the tragic death of Alex Beckett and features his replacement, Robin Pearce.
Though there was a scintillating production at Chichester in 2012, and a wondrously spirited RSC 2015-16 production of Congreve’s other masterpiece Love for Love, this is the first time in twenty years we’ve seen a Congreve play in the London where all his comedies are set. That’s literally a few yards from the Donmar’s Earlham Street, with roads named for actors and entrepreneurs of the time.
It’s an auspicious homecoming for play encapsulating London’s 1700 as a street-map for what three centuries have built on it. Chocolate houses, coffee bars, insider trading, debt as a way of life. In prototype, all contemporary life’s here, though without that bubble reputation on which much of Congreve’s dramatic tension rests. His solutions though, mutual, civilised contraction, remain prescient and modern, down to the first and most famous pre-nuptial contract.
This Donmar production of Congreve’s The Way of the World has risen above one major cast change in rehearsals; and after Alex Beckett’s tragic passing only days after it opened, the remaining performances following a sad pause have been dedicated to his memory. Beckett’s part of Waitwell is taken by Robin Pearce, reprising the role he took at Chichester.
It remains a triumph, directed by James MacDonald with Anan Fleischle’s seductive set based on parqué flooring, some panelling and various fixtures of chairs, chaise-long and tables – including an attractive red-bordered rug seen (I’m sure) at the Donmar before. Peter Mumford’s lighting plays evenly on what’s mostly interiors, and Ma Pappenheims’s sound and composition floods nightingales, horses and a few Purcell Fantasias as well as a snatch of Couperin.
We start in a chocolate house where Tom Mison’s Fainall has just beaten Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Mirabell at cards. There’s a subtext in a bad hand, and Mirabell’s love for Justine Mitchell’s Millamant is not only long-drawn out, Millament herself doesn’t appear till the second act, and her aunt Lady Wishfort daringly delayed till the third.
Congreve has in part drawn back from the racy Love for Love, his most exuberant cloudless play. In between came not simply his lamentable tragedy The Mourning Bride but the Rev. Jeremy Collier’s attack on the stage ushering a new conservatism curbing the stage – all but Farquhar perhaps. Congreve though gets his own back, suggesting a closet will find the Collier next to The Pilgrim’s Progress. And introducing a stage villain Fainall recalls The Double Ealer, and Congreve’s darker vein. Uniquely, Fainall’s the only confidant Mirabell really has: his rakes usually come armed with a sardonic sidekick as well as servant. With just one family to charm where he’s virtually the only outsider, it’s clear that Mirabell’s on his own.
Not that he lacks admirers, even if Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Wishfort, a wondrously transplanted Elizabeth with a white lead face now hates Mirabell for false addresses designed to get to her niece Millamant. Gwynne’s actions from learning how to fall off a chaise-long in dashing dishevelment, through her register of griefs and outrages, is necessarily the highpoint of the curiosly drawn-out Act Three. She’s also active in the Fifth. Her reactions to everyone from Mirabell to Christian Patterson’s oafish but decent Sir Wishful Witwoud comes with a never-ceasing sigh for sexual fulfilment and attendant frustrations.
What’s amazing is that Mrs Fainall, Wishfort’s daughter Amelia, was not only seduced as a young widow by Mirabell, but when they thought she was pregnant he urged her to marry Fainall, dangling her fortune. Why not Mirabell himself? We’re not told. But she’s generously onside with Millamant. It’s all these women’s fortunes Fainall has his eye on.
No-one but his lover Mrs Marwood (Jenny Jules) knows. Like Wishfort she too was in love with Mirabell but as Congreve could have said had he not already expressed it in his tragedy nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’: the lesson being if you want an admirer to stay on side, seduce and gently abandon with a back-up plan, but never refuse. Congreve designed the part for a great tragedian, Elizabeth Barry. Jules brings out the ferocity of Marwood’s self-hatred, vented explosively on Mison’s smooth and feline Fainall (a male Lamia of insinuation broken neatly with early apparent warmth) and with viperous language on Millamant and Mrs Fainall. Jules and Mison’s scene together is paradoxically one of the most passionate, dangerous and revealing. Even Mison’s Fainall fears losing grip of this Marwood.
Mirabell’s own scheme to have Pearce’s Waitwell to feign his non-existent uncle allows Pearce some Fopling-like manoeuvres and a grotesquerie to answer Wishfort. It’s triangulated in Patterson’s Sir Wilful, a kind of older Toby Lumpkin force dot pay court to Millamant who earns the title of friend from Mirabell. Again his forced Lophotkin-like overtures farcical in themselves offset the great Act Four declaration between Streafeid and Mitchell.
These two bring a chemistry of knowledge and tried brilliancy where Mitchell’s mercurial but vulnerable Millamant in fact shows her true emotions only after her lover has retired. Briefly she breaks down. It’s an overwhelming moment, and the detail marking this revival out as a benchmark. Her conditosn too are nailed, with a verbal emphasis both on ‘dwindle’ and ‘wife’ in her famous last clause admitting she may at last come to that. Happily, Streafeild’s mute sympathy doesn’t suggest that, even with his demands including that she shouldn’t try to be a yummy mummy and lace herself to death after childbirth. Fro all Collier’s attempts, Congreve wasn’t too cowed to forego those naturalistic details that make this period live as much drama of the next two centuries fails to do.
Streafeild’s Mirabell makes you believe in the lover who has cunning pas beyond trickery, including a providential one for Mrs Fainall, given life and verve by Caroline Martin – so much so you do wonder why he didn’t marry her and her fortune. It has to be Mitchell’s superior wit and allure (not really her equally modest fortune) to make you believe that Millamant and Mirabell were the only option for each other.
There’s pert work from Sarah Hadland’s Foible, Wishfort’s maid married off by Mirabell to Waitwell to ensure compliance with his stratagems, and the fops Fisayo Akinade as a dizzily animated Wiwoud and Simon Manyonda’s stop-start Petulant. They act with vivid absurdity both together and paired off with confidants. Phoebe Frances Brown’s Betty, Gabriele Brooks’ Mincing and Nathan Welsh’s Footman complete a sparky cast of minor roles.
This is a mostly uncut text lasting over three hours. What’s striking isn’t just the clockwork plotting but the amplitude, even insouciant luxury Congreve allows his characters to unfold in. There are numerous moments where you realize the plot’s being held up for a comic turn seemingly almost unnecessary. But it comes together in this rich, endlessly self-fascinated masterpiece from a master of self-effacement.