“I’m in a maze yet, like a dog in a dancing-school”
I doubt I could have named a single Restoration comedy for you even just a few months ago but trends in theatre change as endlessly as in fashion, and I now find myself having seen three already this year. Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre get in on the act with this revival of William Congreve’s The Way of the World (ahead of Chichester who are putting it on as part of this year’s festival) from 1700, following my trips to the Donmar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706) and the National’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773).
Lyndsey Turner’s production here though is the only one of these that has taken major liberties with the play, in this case setting in the modern day where ‘Restoration’ is a new trend that has swept society. At its simplest, the plot follows the young Mirabell who is courting the delicious Millament, yet comes up against her formidable aunt Lady Wishfort who is set against the match and threatens to withhold her fortune, which many others have their eye on and are willing to commit dastardly deeds to get it. But the play is rarely that simple, and with the directorial device at play, I must admit it challenged me just a little (and made me wish I’d read a synopsis beforehand).
The production as a whole though is a joy to behold. The cast is sensationally good from top to bottom: Deborah Findlay’s Lady Wishfort reinforces her Dame-to-be credentials with superlative comic skill underlaid with a deeply compassionate portrayal of a woman who refuses to be shut away, and Samuel Barnett continues to develop a most intriguing body of work as the foppish Witwoud, giving a masterclass in the art of precise line delivery and economy of movement that slays the audience with a mere word or raised eyebrow. Leo Bill simmers with a barely suppressed viciousness that made me long to see him in something properly modern; Sinéad Matthews revels in the GaGa-inspired quirkiness of Millament; Richard Goulding gives a great hawing English gent as Wilful and Ben Lloyd Hughes makes an impressive debut as the rakish Mirabell.
And Naomi Wilkinson’s stage and costume design mean that this is never less than stunningly sumptuous to look at. Dresses are haute-couture fabulous with cheeky nods back to its original context, and the wide white set converts effortlessly to traverse the many locations where society both see and are seen, and also go about keeping the doors shut to maintain their precious reputations. Turner keeps the pulse fresh and modern, whether through the filming of music videos, characters DJ-ing or in one glorious moment, singing ‘The Edge of Glory’ and so there is no doubting the pure entertainment value of this show.
Dramatically though, it proves a little challenging as the focus of the production is not always on providing clarity where it is needed – especially to someone unfamiliar with the play – and there were moments where the language didn’t quite flow with the naturalism that one would have liked to really pull us into the narrative and connect strongly with it. But there’s so much to enjoy here, Barnett and Findlay give performances that ought to rank with some of the best recent comic work of the past few years, that I have to recommend this strongly – Chichester, consider the bar raised.