Jeremy Malies in Covent Garden
7 April 2018
If William Congreve’s The Way of the World is the jewel in the crown of Restoration drama then director James Macdonald has given it a transparent, sensitive interpretation while designer Anna Fleischle has created a lustrous setting at the Donmar Warehouse.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Macdonald is known for working at the Royal Court on pieces by writers such as Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane not to mention being a graduate of the Lecoq school. The ostensibly safe option of this 1700 comedy of manners might seem an odd choice for him though theatre insiders know that the piece is anything but easy to pull off. It makes exceptional demands on the whole cast if the cascade of wordplay is to build momentum and not implode.
It’s often noted that the scene in which Mirabell (Geoffrey Streatfeild) and Millamant (Justine Mitchell) discuss the financial terms under which they might accept each other in marriage is the equivalent of a modern pre-nup. The plot has many examples of women preserving their independence, asserting themselves in the general social contract with lovers, husbands and parents as well as proving pragmatic. Perhaps a dramatist born in 1670 still has messages for women in the era of #MeToo? (Programme notes stress that while the Restoration saw female roles finally being played by women and not young boys, actresses were usually treated as little better than prostitutes.)
Commentators panned The Way of the World when it was first performed for being over-elaborate and one of this production’s many merits is to make the byzantine sub-plots as comprehensible as they can ever be. You can almost sense the audience’s communal effort of total concentration and the reward.
Alex Beckett, Haydn Gwynne and Sarah Hadland.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
It’s a gift of a scene but the stand-out moments which convulsed the theatre including hardened critics on press night saw Alex Beckett as a resourceful human chameleon of a valet disguised as a nobleman. His master has asked him to lure a conceited unobservant aristocrat into what would be a bigamous marriage. Five days later Beckett lay dead aged 35 of a cause that remains unreported. He had excelled in film, television and theatre, performing in pieces ranging from John Osborne to George Bernard Shaw. It’s an enormous loss.
There is wonderful support work all around. Actors portraying servants and comic stereotypes use technical armoury to individualise roles beyond paradigms. Christian Patterson supplies inventive comic detail as a bumpkin country squire just as the appeal of the urban sophisticates is flagging. Staying with the theme of unexpected gender equality, it’s notable that Patterson’s character withdraws his suit for Millamant as soon as he realises that it will be unwelcome.
This production is more than usually optimistic insofar as Macdonald’s direction steers the actors playing the principal couple and nominal heroes (Mirabell and Millamant) towards suggesting that their commitment to each other is genuine in what is otherwise a society of serial duplicity and intrigue. Streatfeild impresses by making the most of Mirabell’s occasional moments of self-examination beneath the sheen of the wit as he develops the character into much more than a formulaic late-Restoration beau.
The tone is never didactic; Congreve encourages us to observe a privileged and largely worthless stratum of society but without condemning. And there are many examples of solidarity often in the form of two-way loyalty between servant and master. The main themes of class, mercenary marriages and inter-generational conflict will see the play remain topical without any need for directors to warp it out of its natural guise. Congreve’s supreme work should be revived more often.