Review – The Country Wife, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 9th June 2018

The Country WifeWilliam 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.

Lex Shrapnel as HornerIt’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.

Belinda Lang as Lady FidgetWe 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.

John Hodgkinson as PinchwifeThis 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.

The CompanySoutra 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.

Scott Karim as SparkishThere 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.

Susannah Fielding as MargeryThe 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.

Jo Herbert as AlitheaThis 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.

Ashley Zhangahza as HarcourtP. 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

Review – Hedda Gabler, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th July 2012

Hedda GablerWhen I discovered that the third play in the Festival of Chaos season was to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler I was slightly disappointed, as we had only recently seen another production at the Oxford Playhouse with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerny. Why couldn’t it be Ghosts? Or The Master Builder? Or Rosmersholm?

Emma HamiltonHowever, it’s an inspired choice. It dovetails perfectly with The Bacchae and Blood Wedding as a fine example of when someone goes against the grain and does something completely unsuited to their times, society and mores. Hedda has all the hallmarks of a Dionysian character, as director Laurie Sansom points out in his very useful programme notes. A bully as a child, Hedda as a young woman has undefined but we guess potentially impure liaisons with the writer Lovborg, which come to an end when he seeks the equivalent of 19th century Rehab. She is now stuck with her worthy but dull and completely incompatible new husband; but when Lovborg returns, Dionysus within her comes to the surface, not only in how she reacts with him, but in her feelings of jealousy and revenge with the feeble Mrs Elvsted, with whom Lovborg now seems romantically entwined, and also how she deals long term with her whole life situation. It is an exquisite play, and this production brings forward all the delicacies of the plot and brings to life real people with real emotions contrasting strongly with the reserved restrictions of the era.

Jack HawkinsThe set is extremely well devised, with four distinct acting areas each going back further and smaller away from the stage, giving an additional visual suggestion of depth to Ibsen’s words and characters. There’s also the garden area outside the French Windows where characters go to smoke and their lurking outside enhances the feeling of claustrophobia. The lighting works really well, with the different times of day nicely suggested coming through the windows. I won’t spoil it for you, but the lighting in the final minute of the play focusing on the back door is stunningly effective.

Jay VilliersEmma Hamilton plays Hedda Gabler with immense subtlety. Intensely manipulative, revengeful, cruel, deliberately hurtful; but with the ability to turn on the sweetest of smiles, you can absolutely understand why Tesman fell for her. Her words say one thing but her body says something else; you’ve never seen anyone throw away dying flowers with such purpose. Tesman’s possession of Lovborg’s manuscript opens up a range of possibilities for Hedda, and you know she’s going to do something wicked with it but you can’t quite tell what; and that’s partly down to Ibsen’s great writing but also Ms Hamilton’s superbly plotting facial expressions. Technically, she speaks with great clarity – always appreciated – and she brings forward all the light and shade of Hedda’s character. The last Hedda we saw, Rosamund Pike, started as a bitch, maintained bitchiness throughout and ended as a bitch. Emma Hamilton’s is a far more rounded and satisfying interpretation as she made Hedda’s motivations and emotions really clear – whilst still being a bitch.

Lex ShrapnelThe whole cast is excellent. Jack Hawkins as Tesman is completely convincing as the “good” man, but insensitive to the needs of others (especially his wife) and more engaged with his cerebrum than any other part of his body. His childish enthusiasm for all the things Hedda finds tedious is a brilliant portrayal of how different the two characters are. There’s a lovely scene where Hedda is taking Lovborg through the photograph album and calls on Tesman to explain the pictures. He takes her sarcasm as a compliment; it really sums up so much about both of them.

Matti HoughtonJay Villiers is Judge Brack and superbly blends the sophisticated charm of his influential position with a steely determined sense of self-preservation. It’s an immaculate performance, both amusing and slightly threatening. I also liked Lex Shrapnel as Lovborg, all wild haired and distressed, feeling the pain and torture of every moment, strong against temptation at first, only to give into Dionysus and his alcohol to shattering effect later. He’s a fine actor, very much a chip off the old block as I remember really enjoying his father John’s expressive performance as Andrey in Jonathan Miller’s 1976 production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Sue WallaceMatti Houghton is great as the earnest Mrs Elvsted, blindly optimistic about her relationship with Lovborg, thinking Hedda can be trusted with her private matters, seeing her dreams come to nothing, but desperate to be useful, as when she is helping to piece together the manuscript. She’s a rabbit caught in the headlights of Hedda’s manipulations, and she really conveys well the vulnerability of the character. There are also excellent performances from Sue Wallace as the very kindly and supportive Aunt Julle and Janice McKenzie as the put-upon and fearful maid Berte.

Janice McKenzieIt’s an elegant production with great clarity of text – this is Andrew Upton’s adaptation, seen on Broadway in 2006 with Cate Blanchett as Hedda – and a satisfying concentration on the emotional motivations of the characters. Although I’ve seen or read Hedda Gabler four or five times before, I came away feeling that this is the first time that I really understood this play. Superb.