Writer: William Wycherley
Director: Jonathan Munby
Reviewer: David Guest
Restoration comedies are enjoying something of a renaissance, with a recent in-period The Way of the World at the Donmar and The Country Wifeat Southwark Playhouse transposed to the Roaring Twenties showing the timelessness of rants against seduction, deception and excesses.
At Chichester’s Minerva Theatre Wycherley’s sparkling 1675 comedy of manners The Country Wife is updated still further to the present day – or perhaps a little beyond it, with a minister’s despatch box bearing the crest of King Charles, a nod to both Charles II (during whose reign this kind of debauched drama blossomed) and our own future king?
The frolicsome antics in this loud and proud version, directed with contemporary flair by Jonathan Munby, owe more to the celebrity-obsessed world of TOWIE and Made in Chelsea than to bawdy 17thCentury anti-Puritanism and amoral sexual conquest. Perhaps there is a message in itself that a play once banned for its shocking explicitness and saucy shenanigans barely causes the batting of an eyelid today,yet it is certainly hard for a play which in its own time satirised the deceits within marriage in a monogamous society to resonate fully with our world where anything goes.
It’s an oft-revived play, so it’s a joy to discover fresh things in it with a contemporary take. The references in the programme to #MeToo are not entirely relevant to a piece about sexual liberation and the pursuit of immoral satisfaction, but fortunately, this production doesn’t get bogged down in this debate. Rather than a scandalised hashtag, the audience rejoices at the ingénue who more than finds her way through the sexual sophistication of an amoral London.
While not as consistently funny as the recent Morphic Graffiti production at Southwark, this version at Chichester offers a brash humour coupled with bold performances which never fail to engage through its three-hour running time.
Susannah Fielding is a real find as the titular heroine Margery Pinchwife (a role played by Maggie Smith when the play received its last Chichester outing back in 1969). In what is already one of the best performances of the Festival season, she captures the character’s childish innocence coupled with a resourcefulness and strength in her efforts to escape the cruel clutches of her husband (a study of barely controlled jealous nastiness by John Hodgkinson) and discover the carnal pleasures of city life.
Lex Shrapnel is perfect as the louche Harry Horner, whose pretended impotence and efforts to seduce as many women as possible serves as the launching pad for the play’s central plots. Ever the life and soul of the party he carelessly corrupts and cuckolds, and it is telling that he begins and ends this production dejected and alone, first bored by his conquests then bested by the women he has sought to overpower.
The farcical aspects of the play are well drawn out by Belinda Lang’s Lady Fidget, Robin Weaver as Dainty and Natasha Magigi as Squeamish, ladies of virtue who all too quickly succumb to the idea of extra-marital sex. Soutra Gilmour’s dark set, which suits the Minerva space well, allows much banging of doors and….errrrmmm…naughty entrances and exits.
In one of the subplots, the genuine love story of the work, Jo Herbert as Alithea and Ashley Zhangazha as Harcourt are enormously likeable as they discover their love for each other at the expense of the wonderfully foppish and shallow Scott Karim as Sparkish.
Proving that every character counts, even Jack North’s “Boy” oozes with a cheeky demeanour that makes his fleeting presence felt throughout.
The splendid cast make the most of Wycherley’s witticisms and language and all display commendable energy in what is a constantly lively production.
Ultimately, this version stakes a valid claim to offering a solid and interesting interpretation of a classic play that has become increasingly hard to pin down or analyse, ensuring that it has a place on stage over 340 years after its first performance.
Runs until 7 July 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan