KNAVES AND FOOLS, BRAIDED COATS AND BASTARDRY
It’s suddenly a wig-and-fan season, with Mrs Rich at the RSC and now Congreve’s sour, witty classic revived by James MacDonald. There’s even The Country Wife at the Southwark (though apparently fan-free, will report next week). Maybe we need the high-society rogues , dupes and posers of Restoration comedy to distract us from our own set.
This is a full period-dress production, executed immaculately but probably needing another few cuts to be unalloyed joy. The plot is labyrinthine, with a wordy torrent of finely honed wit and derision, fuelled by greed more than love. Congreve is the angriest of the Restoration dramatists. While the lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, end by both admitting their love and winning one another, there can be an Arctic chill of cynical despair at human nature. Knaves and fools, gulls and grabbers are everywhere, adulteries and insincerities part of the game. And to be honest, some of the witticisms have dated too much to resonate in an age without formal manners.
So the first part at 90 minutes, can occasionally drag and baffle, though alleviated by the truly astonishing costumes. Here’s Witwould in a crazy floral coat: Fisayo Akinade, lately St Joan’s camp Dauphin here thoroughly releasing his inner camp dandy ;he is the funniest thing in Act 1 by far. Here’s Millamant in pistachio frills like a giant toilet-roll cover, and of course the men with tumbling hair fabulously breeched , weskited and braided in their gilt frock coatings. Except of course for Christian Patterson giving it large in check tweeds as the drunken squire Sir Wilful.
And of course there’s Haydn Gwynne as Lady Wishfort: controller of the money and marital permissions they’re all after but not of her own plaintive ageing desires. This magnificent, towering figure evolves from a mirror-fearing deshabilée in a dressing gown to a glorious spectacle , beflowered, frilled, netted, petticoated , bustled and topped with half a rose-garden. We do not see her for the first fifty minutes, but just as we grow a little weary of the dandies and plotters and disentangling which discontented belle is sleeping with which scheming beau, Gwynne breaks on us like a tsunami. Hard to remember that she was a late booking after a drop-out: she is born for it, magnificent, tall and angular and quivering with eagerness and vanity; nicely contrasted with a brisk Sarah Hadland as the motherly little Foible as her foil ,dresser and secret member of the conspiracy to cheat her.
The great set-piece where Wishfort tries to decide how to be found lolling when her “lover” arrives will never date – “nothing is so alluring as a levée from a couch in some confusion”. Equally grand is her encounter with the fake “Sir Rowland” – Alex Beckett with a faux posh accent and tragedian manner, the impression of Primark-sale Olivier reinforced by the black wig. The scene is both very funny and touched, as it must be, with pathos – Wishfort is, after all, only silly and lonely for love, not an out and out bastard like Fainall, or an opportunist like Geoffrey Streatfeild’s complicated Mirabell.
As for the lovers, Streatfeild and Justine Mitchell’s brittle, damaged, confined Millamant lay down their conditions about marriage and “dwindling into a wife” with enough sudden seriousness to hold us silent between laughs. And the final showdown at last lets us properly feel for them, and for Wishfort and indeed Foible. But goodness, it is a harsh comedy still. Which is, I suppose, its greatness.
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