Restoration comedy generally takes a rather dim view of marriage; the central lovers may want to overcome every obstacle placed in their path to reach their happy union, but those who are married already want nothing more than to be rid of their boorish, shrewish or philandering spouse. These plays suggest that marriage transforms people and not for the better, so what future awaits the affianced couple? Arguably, it is marriage made for material gain, and between people who are hopelessly incompatible, but William Congreve’s 1700 play The Way of the World shows us that even those people once fancied themselves in love.
The play was written at the latter end of the theatrical form of restoration, as the sobering William and Mary reached the end of their first decade as rulers, offered the throne in place of Charles II’s brother James – an absolutist and a Catholic. While these plays always had a moral element with good and bad getting the ending they deserved, Congreve’s writing introduced the idea of morality of money too. The importance of fortune drives The Way of the World’s plot, peppered with references to dowries and female inheritance, money separates eligible women from those with mere beauty to recommend them.
As the play opens, Fainall is playing cards with the hero Mirabell, who is in love with Millamant, but her aunt, Lady Wishfort, loathes Mirabell and would refuse to pay the £6000 dowry. To trick Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the match, Mirabell plots to use his manservant, Waitwell, (who he has married to Lady Wishfort’s maid Foible) to impersonate an aristocrat and make advances to the middle-aged aunt, assuming that rescuing her from the indignation would earn her eternal gratitude. Fainall meanwhile lives a semi-separated existence from the wife he no longer loves and who despises him in return, but he cannot survive without her money. Fainall is having an affair with Lady Wishfort’s friend Mrs Marwood who hears of Mirabell’s plan and uses it to help her lover lay claim to the rest of his wife’s fortune.
James Macdonald’s production at the Donmar Warehouse is still finding its feet and while some aspects of the farce are working well, particularly once Mirabell’s plan begins to take shape in Act 3, it needs a few more performances for the actors to find an ease with the lines and for the comedy to really sparkle. It’s early days, but with press night this week, it lacks a little bounce and, while the performances are uniformly impressive, they’re not yet fully relishing the full malice or humour of the lines.
It’s a sluggish and quite static start, and it takes a while for the conversation and the complexities of the inter-related plot to warm-up. There is a lot of crucial information in the early discussion between Mirabell and Fainall, so Macdonald has created what feels like an entirely masculine environment that sets the tone really well, but with lots of comings and goings, as yet unseen characters talked about and intrigues aplenty, there isn’t quite enough clarity to help the audience with setting the scene and confirming the tone.
And this is a problem that runs through the production, which sharply vacillates between rather broad slapstick-like comedy, taut social satire and credible emotional engagement, without quite settling into its groove. There is a lot of sneaky plotting in Act Two and Three which could feel more covert and shadowy, and while Witwoud and Petulant have some amusing scenes, even by the end of the play it’s still not clear what role they have really played in proceedings or what relation they are to the rest of the characters – they may be essential but that hasn’t been conveyed as clearly as it could be. Streamlining the play’s current length – at a rather unjustified three and a half hours – could improve the flow and help to focus on the key elements of the plot.
It’s not all bad, and there are plenty of positives which over a few more performances should help to settle the characters and mannerisms. Once they get going, the farcical elements build well as the manservant disguised as Sir Roland enjoys a hilarious encounter with Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne) in her rooms. It’s an exaggerated scene in which the obviously overacting Waitwell (Alex Beckett) exuberantly declares his love for the garish aunt, growing increasingly hilarious as the seduction becomes progressively more lustful.
Macdonald’s production also emphasises the strength of the female characters, whose multiple forms of power is another highlight – while the men may plot and scheme, ultimately they are beholden to the superior fiscal and social power of the ladies. Lady Wishfort holds the future of all the men entirely in her hands, it is in her gift to bestow Millimant’s much debated £6000 dowry on Mirabelle, while she is the route Fainall chooses for his blackmail plot to extort the remained of his wife’s fortune. The other women are equally well drawn; the fiendish Mrs Marwood utilises her single status to exact revenge on her enemies, while maidservant Foible becomes key to enacting Mirabell’s plot, and even the young love interest Millamant is a scathing and authoritative figure dismissing her multiple lovers with a withering put-down.
Macdonald’s emphasis on materiality is also extremely effective, with even the servants becoming embroiled in their master’s schemes based on some sense of human ownership – who else to enact a vicious rouse to enhance your own personal gain, than the people who depend on you for their livelihood. There is also a fascinating scene between Millamant and Mirabell as they indulge in what is essentially a marital bargain, each outlining the terms under which they would accept each other. Crucially, none of these are about love but the right to dominate particular rooms, have their own way whenever they feel like it and to control both those invited into their homes and the conversations permitted. These are two resolutely single people insisting on a mode of living that suits them, a marriage of material comfort.
Geoffrey Streatfeild has some particularly notable experience with restoration comedy, starring in the National Theatre’s superb production of The Beaux’ Stratagem back in 2015. He has an ear for the pace and flow of the writing, able to deliver Congreve’s lines with a natural speed and meaning that bring out the full flavour of Mirabell’s character. Streatfeild’s performances are always worth seeing, and while he was by far the best thing in the recent production of Cellmates at the Hampstead Theatre, bringing a new subtly to the role of the stranded spy in Russia, here again he applies his considerable range to the complex role of the lothario in love.
His Mirabell makes for a credible lover, and in a play where no one else seems to mean any protestation of love, he brings sincerity and underlying emotion to each declaration. In the presence of his object, he seems overwhelmed, almost tongue-tied in admiration as she repeatedly outwits him, enjoying his suffering. Streatfeild conveys deep feeling so well, and despite the powerful intrigues he sets in motion, a genuine heart beats beneath the surface – potentially for a woman who does not deserve his devotion.
As Millamant Justine Mitchell presents a sharp and sarcastic woman who is well aware of her own worth, and willing to play her lovers off against one another for her own amusement. She implies a preference for Mirabelle which is entirely practical, based on the freedom to conduct much of her life as she chooses and to retain her status in town. It’s a refreshing presentation of a female lead in a period drama, and Mitchell makes Millamant’s powerful position clear, certain she will at least be in a marriage of equals. Whether she is in love with Mirabell is debatable, but she at least has the gumption to control or hide her feelings in order to secure the best deal for her future self.
Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Wishfort is a larger-than-life interpretation that suits her farcical scenes quite well. Splendidly, and somewhat gaudily, dressed by Anna Fleischle, Gwynne is clearly having a fantastic time as the fluttery aunt desperate to be seduced one last time, and her performance is at a comedic pitch of nervy anxiety and reawakened passion throughout. She has lots of hilarious moments, although the depth of her loathing for Mirabell (and others) will become deeper as the run progresses.
There is impressive support from Jenny Jules as the scorned Mrs Mawood who enjoys using her power to exact revenge, although Jules could revel in the lines a little more and make them really bite, while her rival Mrs Fainall is given a likeable and controlled exterior by Caroline Martin. Sarah Hadland is an excellent Foible, bringing great timing and delivery to the more farcical elements, and proving that even serving women make feisty wives, while Fisayo Akinade plays up the foppery as Witwoud. There is a general tendency to speed through the lines and occasionally quieter tones are lost in the loud rustle of silk dresses but, again, this should even out as the cast become more confident.
There’s plenty of potential here and the performances, which still feel a little isolated, should become a company effort as more time on the stage familiarises the flow, and repetition reinforces the play’s relationships. Anna Fleischle has designed a set that becomes increasingly feminised as the power shifts from the dark panelling of the all-male first Act where the intrigues are born, to the more elaborately decorated home of Lady Wishfort with carpets, paintings and a chaise longue to imply a richly furnished female space where ultimate power rests.
Macdonald’s production of The Way of the World still has a little more to do ahead of press night to discover its spring and, crucially to bring the audience more fully into the joy of the schemes Congreve sets up. After the interval, the audience in the circle had notably thinned – a result of the long run time in conjunction with the slightly flat first couple of Acts – but the remainder is worth staying for as the core plot and comedy ramp-up, ending with a well-choreographed formal dance. The Donmar’s new version of Congreve’s play has plenty of musings on marriage and the role of women which still feel extremely pertinent; it just needs to even out the tone to make this restoration comedy really fizz.
The Way of the World is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 May. Tickets start at £10 with Klaxon tickets released every Monday at 12pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1