After a consciously modern production of Etherege’s The Man of Mode at the National earlier this year, Jonathan Kent’s new venture at the Haymarket (the ambitious, some would say foolhardy, Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, with three shows announced over the coming year), opens with a rather muddled production of William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy The Country Wife. There are several problem with restoration comedies, one being that are perceived as rather pantomime like (although are in reality are quite sophisticated, but of course restoration comedy has neither the appeal, or the box office, of pantomime). Another, that they revel in world play and can seem convoluted or complex to modern audiences (therefore requiring ‘work’ for those unfamiliar with the story or language, which is true and attested too by comments I heard tonight from other audience members). This is why I can see the rationale behind a director bringing the bawdy action of these sex comedies up to date (projecting ‘sexy’, ‘modern’ etc), but if you do that you really have to be fully committed to it, otherwise you should just stick with gaudy 17th century settings. Kent has it both ways, he gives us (hideous) floral frock coats, but skinny jeans and tight shirts under them (for the young men), but breeches and stockings for others (the oldies). We get lurid sets (costume and set by Paul Brown) of bright coloured wallpaper, again with bold floral patterns, but they have a note of post modern kitsch irony, and are rather angular, they could almost come out of a trendy Hoxton restaurant. We get glossy magazines, brightly coloured writing paper and modern furniture, mixed with period pieces and candles. We even get a modern pool table and bar room set (complete with a Kronenbourg 1664 beer advert). For me, the pieces of the concept (if there is one) just don’t sit right, or very easily, together.
So, my main grumble with the production is the design, the acting is spot on (broad comedy, but not broad as the Thames) and the direction pleasingly brisk (Kent has also cut the original text wisely, though the addition of ‘wassup’ was less welcomed and as jarring as the confused set). The story is of a notorious man about town (Horner, Toby Stephens) who comes back from a sojourn in France, falsely spreading the rumour that he is now impotent via some horrible continental venereal disease, so otherwise (rightly) jealous and suspicious husbands will not consider him a threat, and he can essentially get easy access to any women he wants. It’s a funny premise, with all the sub plots, disguises and intrigues that you would expect. In fact herein lies the problem, but with the play and not the production; all this witty word play and Byzantine goings on can get a trifle tedious, especially in the first act. In the second act, with the characters and plot device established, we have more time for jokes and improbable happenings, and indeed sex. It all ends as neatly, with the sexual shenanigans sorted out, and outraged morals soothed.
Stephens is an alluring presence onstage, he is clearly sexy, and his character wily with it. I don’t generally think he is the greatest actor in the world (I have almost forgotten his Hamlet), but he fits this role well (and indeed his last role, the caddish Jerry in Pinter’s Betrayal at the Donmar). David Haig is a delight as the cuckolded Pinchwife, all nervous energy, totally fed up with life (and he treats his young bride of the title like a pet dog, and is worryingly free in brandishing his pen knife at her). The other notable cast member is Patricia Hodge, but her role as Lady Fidget is funny enough (she’s just as randy as Horner), but ultimately not a very rewarding part for such a talented actress.
Remembering that this play is a wonderful piece of social history, and restoration comedy a brilliant flowering of impious, scandalous and generally wicked writing before centuries of prudery, The Country Wife is well worth seeing (and this will be on the half price booth every night, so save money, you needn’t book in advance). But maybe I just have a restoration problem, I just didn’t laugh as much as I think I should, and that set and its awkwardness just won’t leave my mind.
P.S: There is a live rabbit, safely housed in a pink hutch, onstage. I know the rabbit is a motif in this production, but I still think the poor creature could have been left at home without any adverse effect for the play.