Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until October 19
Reviewed by Mark Brown
This is a very welcome staging of The Rivals, the famous comedy of manners by the great Irish satirist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Directed at the Citizens Theatre by Dominic Hill, it is a co-production by the Citz, Bristol Old Vic and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.
First staged in 1775, the play nods back to the Restoration comedies of the late 17th century. It also points forward to the comic dramas of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
The piece is a reminder of the extraordinarily different theatrical histories of England and Scotland. In England, theatre was frozen out by the Puritanism of the Cromwellian interregnum for a mere 11 years (1649-1660). In Scotland, by contrast, John Knox and the Calvinist Reformation introduced such strict prohibitions on drama that the development of the art of theatre was arrested for centuries to come.
Not for Caledonia the lascivious humour of the plays permitted by the “Merry Monarch”, Charles II. Nor, indeed, the “genteel comedies” of Sheridan, which anticipate Wilde’s plays in their capacity to entertain the higher orders while, simultaneously, sending them up something rotten.
The Rivals is a tightly woven farce of aristocratic and bourgeois love rivalry in the city of Bath. The wealthy young lady Lydia Languish (who lives under the guardianship of Sheridan’s famous, linguistically confused character Mrs Malaprop) is desired by three men; the blue-blooded Captain Jack Absolute, the buffoonish country gent Bob Acres, and the hard-up Irish nobleman Sir Lucius O’Trigger.
Her heart set on a romantic love, unencumbered by the financial deal making of the upper classes, Lydia has fallen for the penniless soldier Ensign Beverley. However, Beverley is, in fact, Captain Jack, who is hiding his wealth behind a not-so-cunning disguise.
Into this already complex mix stomps Sir Anthony Absolute, Jack’s monstrously severe, yet hypocritical father, and young couple Julia Melville and Faulkland, whose love affair is constantly being undone by the latter’s preposterous suspicion and uncertainty.
The craftsmanship and humour of the play was not appreciated by the critics or the public at first. However, some decades later, the leading English critic William Hazlitt would commend its dramatic and literary qualities, proclaiming it “as good as a novel in the reading”.
Hill’s production is a thing of beauty. Cleverly and humorously metatheatrical, it is assisted wonderfully by Tom Rogers’s set designs, which involve the dramatic flying in of proscenium arches within proscenium arches, and the unfurling of a splendid, black-and-white backcloth depicting a Georgian theatre curtain.
There is a smartly comic interplay between Sheridan’s day and the most recent, pre-digital era. Opulent period costumes collide with such tangible, creative objects as a Polaroid camera and a typewriter. Disconcertingly, one realises that, such is the rate of technological change in the 21st century, one might as well long for the fopperies of the Georgian period as the palpable cultural products of the 20th century.
Hill and his universally outstanding cast seem to grasp the play’s pace and timing almost intuitively. The immense self-regard of Julie Legrand’s Mrs Malaprop is, delightfully, in inverse relation to her miniscule self-awareness. The wry observations of Henry Everett’s David (servant to Bob Acres) add a neat element of class warfare to the proceedings.
Lucy Briggs-Owen’s high-octane, self-dramatising Lydia is the perfect comic partner to the undue cockiness of Rhys Rusbatch’s Captain Jack. However, the towering performance of the evening is Desmond Barrit’s deliciously grotesque Sir Anthony.
Demanding the unquestioning obedience of his adult son in matters matrimonial, while expressing his own lecherous tastes with the alacrity of a pre-presidential Donald Trump, he is an unforgettable, hilarious colossus.
An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 13, 2016
© Mark Brown