Is it a coincidence that three Restoration comedies open in one week? And is the theatre-going public prepared?
The latest is Donmar Warehouse’s sumptuous production of Congreve’s The Way of the World that stretches into the night for more than three hours.
On Friday night, when I saw the production, a number of punters didn’t return after the interval – which is a shame because it has a lot going for it including a priceless turn by Haydn Gwynne.
Perhaps the moniker ‘comedy’ is a misnomer. These plays, written when satire was at its most scathing, set out to ridicule and mock society, class, and often persons of note.
They’re frequently bawdy, saucy and suggestive but not slapstick, laugh-out-loud, funny as we would interpret comedy today.
At their heart, or so I’ve found this week, is sex.
Everyone has, or wants to have, affairs, they despise marriage, and, more often than not, practice misogyny as though it were a religion.
Its female characters, while exerting independence, are still bound by convention which dictates that they are chattle to be robbed of their fortunes on a contracted marriage, and then discarded by their husbands for a fresh purse to plunder.
If nothing else these costumed romps give us an insight into the 17th century life of the upper classes and its not all coffee houses, gossip and dissembling.
There is also a huge amount of, if not plagiarism, then certainly repetition of plot.
William Congreve’s WOTW, written in 1700, is very similar to Mary Pix’s The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, a now forgotten playwright, which appeared in the same year and is now enjoying a rare revival at The RSC’s Swan Theatre.
Interestingly Pix, who had already had one play plagiarised by rival George Powell, lived in Lincoln’s Inn Fields at the time Congreve published his play – which premiered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Both, at their heart, follow the efforts of a wealthy widow who, knowing that time is against her, is desperate to secure a new husband, while those around them conduct their own romantic liaisons with wild abandon.
Haydn Gwynne steps down from a Gainsborough painting to play Mrs Wishfort, the powdered and preening old trout looking for love.
She looks glorious, in a spectacular floral gown, and gives an outstanding turn as the widow hoping to capture the heart of a visiting lord – unaware that she is being played by her arch enemy, Mirabell (Geoffrey Streatfeild).
In order for Mirabell to marry Wishfort’s neice, the fiery and resistant Millamant, and receive her full dowry, he must receive the old girl’s blessing.
But Lady Wishfort despises him and wants her own nephew, the country squire, Sir Wilfull, to wed Millamant.
Meanwhile, the evil Fainall, a supposed friend of Mirabell’s, is having a secret affair with his wife’s friend, Mrs Marwood, who, in turn, once had an affair with Mirabell and is now bitter and resentful.
In a quite incredible piece of plotting, Mirabell encourages his servant, Waitwell, to marry Lady W’s maid, Foible, (are you following?) and then pretend to be Sir Rowland, the object of Wishfort’s desire.
Mirabell hopes that by tricking Lady Wishfort into a false engagement, he will be granted permission to marry Millamant, who is, herself, playing very hard to get.
Meanwhile a jealous Mrs Marwood, not content on helping Fainall extricate himself from his own marriage, destroying the life of his poor wife, is intent on ensuring Mirabell doesn’t succeed in his scheme.
WOTW is very wordy and the cast seem to think they’re on some sort of meter, dashing through the dialogue at a terrific rate possibly in order to get out before last orders in Covent Garden.
The story, as most Restoration comedies, is so convoluted and multi-faceted that you have to have a sober head to follow each strand.
James Macdonald’s handsome production tries its best to be engaging but occasionally it reeks of style over substance because, for all Congreve’s machinations, the core storyline is lacking in fine detail.
Performances by the entire ensemble are larger-than-life with Alex Beckett’s superbly, over-loud and uproarious turn as the bogus Sir Rowland, bringing the house down.
His full-on squiring and flattering of Lady Wishfort almost causes the widow to swoon. She is overcome by his attentions and giggles like a schoolgirl.
Jenny Jules and Tom Mison are strong as the plotting Marwood and Fainall – you almost feel the need to boo every time they sweep in – and Justine Mitchell excels as the fiery Millamant who refuses to let her paramour, Mirabell, take her for granted.
Fisayo Akinde is splendid as the flamboyant fop, Witwoud, who gets all the best lines (and the best frockcoat – absolutely stunning) delivering them with eloquence and fine timing.
And Christian Patterson’s outsized Sir Wiltfull Witwoud, long lost brother of the peacock Witwoud, makes his presence known though his accent does drift around the UK and Ireland.
At three hours and ten minutes, I’d like to see the production trimmed by 30 minutes – but that’s just personal preference.
It looks lavish with Anne Fleischle’s opulent costumes absolutely glowing in front of the dark wood, Georgian-panelled set and the addition of candlelight, in the second act, is beautiful.
A stylish restoration.
The Way of the World runs at the Donmar until May 26.