Tag Archives: eighteenth-century

The Way of the World – Donmar Warehouse

The Way of the World - Donmar Warehouse

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

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Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Donmar Warehouse

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Johan Persson

Scandal, intrigue and endless seduction – no wonder Choderlos de Laclos’s novel was met with outrage when it was first published in 1782. Yet somehow Les Liaisons Dangereuses has become a classic, revisited and reimagined countless times and in various guises. Most people will remember the film Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfiffer that remains it’s most famous incarnation, but what about the film Valmont with Colin Firth in the title role or Cruel Intentions, a pretty successful high school update with Sarah Michelle Geller and Ryan Philippe that gave a young Reece Witherspoon her big break. There’s something about this story and it’s notions of darkness beneath a thin veil of respectability that appeals to us, and in a period of festive excess and indulgence, how fitting that the Donmar has decided to restage it over Christmas.

Thrown over by her latest lover for the 15 year old Cecile, the Marquise de Merteuil convinces her associate the Vicomte de Valmont to seduce the girl first so her new husband will be shamed on the wedding night. But there’s a side bet as reputed lothario Valmont attempts to seduce the married and honourable Madame de Tourvel who would be his greatest conquest. Merteuil jealous of the growing affection she detects agrees and fearful of losing her power over Valmont agrees to sleep with him if he succeeds with Tourvel. Soon the alliance between the two is on shaky ground and their extensive plots to wreak havoc amongst their acquaintance begins to tear away the veneer of propriety that Merteuil in particular has worked so hard to maintain.

The Donmar’s new production of Christopher Hamilton’s adaptation is beautifully designed by Tom Scutt, combining decadence in the furniture and costumes with a shabby feel to the backdrop. Cleverly as the play opens everything is covered in thin (and entirely modern) plastic wrappers that seem to have a dual purpose – both preserving the items underneath and semi-concealing them, which reflects the nature of morality in this play and the lengths the characters go to preserve a public image. At various points characters tear off the wrappers from furniture and paintings to reveal its truth underneath, much as individuals will be unmasked before the conclusion. Finally Valmont himself is wrapped in a piece of this plastic suggesting a reverse morality for him – the only person whose wicked character is openly known at the beginning and is somehow redeemed by the events of the play.

Another notable feature of the design is the way in which paintings are used in the background to reflect the tone of those moments. For the entire first half which is all about seduction a large scene is propped against the back wall depicting fleshy nudity, but these are replaced by more romantic portraits of respectable women as the second part turns to considerations of love and reputation, before being removed entirely as a starkly lit and wintery conclusion rips away all the artifice of polite society.

Janet McTeer leads the acting honours with a deliciously calculating and frosty performance as the Marquise de Merteuil. It’s a difficult role that requires McTeer to portray her character’s treachery and jealousy beneath a surface respectability which needs to convince the other characters while letting the audience see she’s playing a double game. This is a play dominated by meaty female roles and McTeer’s Merteuil is clearly the master-brain behind all the subplots and intrigues which is fascinating to watch. But this is far from a caricature, McTeer interlaces the barbs with obvious pangs of jealousy, fear and considerable feeling as the betryals start to unravel which makes her Merteuil more human and surprisingly sympathetic in places as a women of a certain age clinging to a seductive power to retain control in a society that almost revers male promiscuity but punishes women for the same approach – how very relevant to today.

Dominic West also brings a welcome new spin to the role of Valmont placing him in a more romantic arc than some earlier interpretations. What West does so well is to balance the swagger of the virile lover with the blindness of a man who doesn’t realise he’s in love. It feels particularly layered in the scenes with Elaine Cassidy as Tourvel as he thinks he’s fooling her into falling in love with him, but actually he genuinely loves her but doesn’t know it, which is a difficult thing to convey to an audience and which West achieves very successfully. Again like McTeer’s performance, this makes him more human and ultimately likeable, making the scenes with Cassidy particularly compelling. But this doesn’t detract from the easy confidence he also elicits with other women which helps to explain why he’s so successful in charming them into bed despite his reputation. The escalation of events in the second half is also well played and his vicious exchanges with McTeer are edged with danger.

With two powerful leads some of the other characters feel a little pale in comparison but the brevity of their appearance lends weight to the idea that there are pawns in the game between Merteuil and Valmont – it barely matters who they are, just cannon fodder for their latest scheme. While other versions have given more time to the secondary characters, here they have just enough existence to give the tale plenty of substance while holding up a mirror to the morality of the central protagonists.  And everyone makes the most of their role from the knowing servants who sing beautifully while changing the set, to the more substantial parts.

Best among them is Elaine Cassidy as Madame de Tourvel, a difficult role that requires the actress to be almost pious in her devotion to her honour, while eventually collapsing under the strain of fighting against Valmont’s persistence. Cassidy navigates the histrionics brilliant and never veers into melodrama, instead you see a genuinely pained woman struggling to maintain control which by extension makes Valmont’s love seem worthy and likely – their developing bond gives this production some real heart. The role of Cecile the innocent ingénue is also a pretty difficult one to make believable and she’s often portrayed as a giggling idiot, but Morfydd Clark brings a girlish innocence to the part which seems credible without being too wide eyed. Finally Edward Holcroft does well in a small but pivotal role as music teacher Danceny who becomes enmeshed in the battle between the leads.

The Donmar’s version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is beautifully staged and brings fresh perspective to the characterisation. While there is still plenty of menace and betrayal to suit the purists, Josie Rourke’s version adds a touch of romance that actually makes the characters more believable and more human, while helping the actors steer clear of pantomime villains. As a play about the destructive nature of passion this more nuanced approach means Rourke has created an ending that packs a punch. Although sold out (as so often the case at the Donmar) the superb Barclays Front Row scheme means if you login at exactly 10am on any Monday during the run you’ll be able to bag an advanced ticket for £10 which is how I got mine. So this combination of fantastic value for money, meaningful design and insightful performances means this production is the perfect end to my theatrical year.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is at the Donmar Warehouse until 13 February. Tickets are sold out but returns will be available at the box office, and every Monday £10 seats are available from the Barclays Front Row Scheme operated via the Donmar website. There will also be an NT Live Broadcast on 28 January.

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The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760 – The Queen’s Gallery

Amidst the national remembrance for the First World War, it’s easy to forget that 2014 also marks the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian monarchy in Britain. Following up on the British Library’s exhibition early in the year, the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace has rooted around in the archives and put together a fascinating collection of rarely seen treasures which give us an insight into cultural, political and dynastic life in Georgian England.

The exhibition is divided into several sections; the first understandably is a selection of individual and family portraits of the Georgian royal families, just to give you a sense of who everyone is. There are lots of nice pictures here and a hint at how marketing the family ideal was done in the eighteenth-century – this was after all a new and foreign monarch who needed to be portrayed as being just like his British subjects.

Things get considerably more interesting after this, both in terms of the themes of Georgian life that we’re shown and the diverse content of the Royal Collection. The section on new modes of architecture and landscaping places original floor plans for great houses and gardens alongside paintings and sketches of the finished product. We see which rooms were designed for specific contemporary purposes including how to display its owner’s taste and education, as well as seeing interior rooms or galleries as they were. It’s a fascinating insight into the planning and building of great houses, and into the romantic way in which the finished product was presented to the world.

But if you think eighteenth-century Britain is all about culture and art, then the next section quickly reminds you that throughout the early Georgian era the first two monarchs were beset by political instability and the threat of war from the displaced Stuarts. Original battle plans are shown alongside maps, portraits of generals and other war-related items including some original weapons. It’s a clever reminder that for all our notions of polite society at this time, there was still a quite serious struggle to gain legitimacy for the new regime. And it certainly makes you look back at the previous two sections as clever marketing designed to create a sense of progress, refinement and stability at time when the latter could not be guaranteed.

In the third section we see more about society outside the royal circle, with the centrepiece being prints of Hogarth’s Marriage-a-la-mode showing a couple’s journey from a money-based arranged marriage to adultery, poverty, murder and death. The same is true of A Harlot’s Progress, also seen here, showing the corruption of a young girl which again leads to dissipation and death. On the surface Georgian England was obsessed with taste and lineage but underneath it all, human vice remains ever present. This certainly adds another dimension to the painting of the party-atmosphere in St James’s Park with people carousing happily throughout. At least Canaletto’s beautiful pictures of the Thames show the changing architectural shape of London without comment on the moral dubiety of London’s inhabitants.

After this you move into several other rooms which are clearly part of a permanent collection but the gallery has spun them to make it seem like they’re 18th century related. For a start all the walls up until this point have been a Wedgwood cornflower blue shade and now they’re red and green. Most of it is from the Charles I and II era with notes saying this was all highly collectable in the eighteenth-century. There are interesting pieces of furniture, portraits and even some crockery, but you can tell it’s not part of what we saw before. Nice try Royal Collection but we’re not fooled – clearly the main exhibition is over and this is other stuff. But its ok, we don’t mind.

So the genuinely Georgian bit of this exhibition is really interesting and great to get an alternative perspective on events, showing not just this cultural change, but also the political and international dimensions to the first two Georges. Be warned it took me two attempts to get into this, and the second time I had to book, but it is worthwhile. And the permanent collection at the end is worth a wander too – it is included in the ticket after all! There are still a couple more weeks to enjoy these rarely seen pieces, cleverly curated to shed light on the first half of the eighteenth-century and showing us how the balance of international politics and skilful marketing laid the foundation for a new monarchical house.

The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760 is at the Royal Collection until 12 October and tickets are £9.75 with concessions available, but do book in advance.


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