William Wycherley’s The Country Wife was first performed in 1675, slap bang in the middle of the period when all the theatregoing public wanted was sex – the bawdier, the better. They’d had enough of those puritans, spreading misery and restraint; what they wanted was a damn good laugh, and it had better be a filthy one too.
It’s a rather neatly structured and tidy example of the Restoration Comedy genre; cuckolded husbands, rampant fornicators, foppish twerps, licentious servants, as well as a story of true love and an interesting contrast between the ways of the town and those of the country – including the pun in the title, which I’m sure you’ve grasped.
We first meet the roguish Horner in conversation with his quack, who has let it be known that Horner has been diagnosed as impotent as any eunuch in the orient – so much for patient confidentiality. Horner’s plan is that this will make him irresistible to women because they will either feel safe in his company, or they will want to try to put him to the test. Either way, he wins. His first sortie is to convince Sir Jasper Fidget to get access to Lady Fidget, her sister Dainty, and their constant companion Mistress Squeamish. Easy. As an additional bonus, he gets to cuckold the men of the town in a warped, power-mad desire for dominance; the cuckold dance at the end of the play signifies the complete fruition of all his effort. He has a retinue of mates who love the sound of all that extra-marital hoo-ha, including the foppish Sparkish, who is to marry Alithea, the sister of Margery. She is herself newly married to the wretched Pinchwife, who hides her by locking her in her bedroom so that scurrilous menaces like Horner can’t winkle her out and have their wicked way with her. Does Horner indulge in a little Ladies and Gentlemen with every woman in the town? Does Pinchwife successfully preserve Margery’s virtue? Does Sparkish get to marry Alithea? As the play’s been around almost 350 years now, I’m sure you already know the answer.
This very modern version of the play – drinks trolleys, pizza boxes, neon-signed nightclubs, Ann Summers shopping bags – puts less emphasis on the fun aspect that the original 1675 audience would have relished, and more on the sordid nature of Horner’s life and game-playing, and its wider effects on those about him. We have no sympathy for Horner; we don’t identify with him and aren’t jealous that he gets all the girls. He’s a loathsome wretch, waking up on the sofa in a post-alcoholic stupor; adding more notches on his bedpost simply because he can, and because there’s nothing much else for him to do that he’d be good at. The final scene shows him back on his sofa, still knocking back the remnants of last night’s booze. He has progressed not an inch. Pinchwife’s just as bad, threatening his wife with violence, locking her away like a caged bird; and at the end of the play it’s Margery who is visibly broken by the entire experience, the true victim of all that has gone before. So, whilst it’s a lively and enjoyable production, you’re never far from having something of a dirty taste at the back of your throat.
Soutra Gilmour has designed a dark and functional set, very bachelor pad in its creature comforts; the reversable back wall has three doors, useful for highlighting the Feydeau Farce aspect of the play, and a Restoration Comedy word cloud is projected onto the back wall from time to time, just in case you forget the naughtiness of the era. There’s a lot of zaniness going on at each scene change, with chairs, beds, and what-have-yous all being swirled around in circles on their way on or off stage, as though to highlight the uncontrollably madcap nature of Horner’s world. The costumes are perfect, from Lady Fidget’s business chic and Sir Jasper’s staid old codger’s suit to the trendiest clothes you can get in H&M for all the young people. Musical man of the moment, Grant Olding, has composed some mind-joltingly harsh techo-jingles to accompany the scene changes and Jonathan Munby’s direction is slick and unsentimental.
There are smart performances throughout: Lex Shrapnel’s Horner is very believable as that lowlife swine who looks on the world as something to be wrung out to dry for his own benefit, a professional manipulator who doesn’t even need much in the way of charisma to get what he wants. John Hodgkinson’s Pinchwife is a tetchy mass of nervous energy, constantly on his guard against unwanted approaches; it’s an excellent portrayal of a man brought to the brink of anxiety by his own selfishness, whose only fuel left in his tank is to attack the one he loves. Belinda Lang is a delightfully over-the-top poseuse as the affected Lady Fidget; Scott Karim gives a good account of the foppish Sparkish, including the most insincere chuckle you’ve ever heard; and there’s excellent support from Ashley Zhangazha and Jo Herbert as Harcourt and Alithea, the genuine young lovers caught up in all this nonsense.
The night, however, belongs to Susannah Fielding, who is superb as Margery, with wonderful wide-eyed innocence mixed with her sad, suppressed and frustrated expressions as she languishes pointlessly alone on her bed. There’s a wonderful scene where Pinchwife has to lead Margery through the town so she is disguised as a man – or in this case, a schoolboy, nevertheless pretending to be Pinchwife’s brother – much to the amusement of the onlookers. You’ll never think of Wee Jimmie Krankie in the same way again. An immaculate performance bringing out all the pathos and humour that befits the role.
This was a preview performance, so there was always a possibility that some things might change before press night. It’s a little long at just under three hours, but it’s difficult to see where any further cuts could be made. Certainly, the second part of the play feels more rollicking than the first, which was a shame for those dozen or so people who decided to leave at the interval; a harsh judgment on their part, I thought. It’s a powerful, relevant production, perfect for introducing a new generation to the wicked world of the Restoration.
P. S. As it was gone 10.30 pm when it finished, it was too late for us to pay our usual homage at the Cote Restaurant in Chichester; it’s a town that likes to go to bed early. So for the first time we stayed behind at the Minerva Bar and Grill and had some of their sharing plate suppers – and they were absolutely delicious. A bottle of Merlot and terrific service eased our way almost into the new day. Definitely recommended as a brilliant way to finish your evening at the theatre!
Production photos by Manual Harlan