The Country Wife
Southwark Playhouse, 17th April 2018
I haven’t seen that many Restoration comedies. In fact if I take the list of notable examples of the genre offered up by Wiki I see it is a grand total of one, in the form of the NT’s Beaux Stratagem from 2015, directed by the versatile Simon Godwin. It was OK but I can’t say I was bowled over. Still anyone with the Tourist’s theatrical pretensions needs to master the form so he leapt at the chance to see this production of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife courtesy of Morphic Graffiti. Especially at the bargain basement price of a tenner. There is no cheaper, or often, better way to see theatre in London than through Southwark Playhouse’s Pay As You Go offer. All Londoners should be compulsorily enrolled for their own cultural good.
Luke Fredericks and Stewart Charlesworth are the brains behind Morphic Graffiti which they set up in 2012. I see that the majority of their well received work to date has been musicals, including a version of the problematic Rodgers and Hammerstein work Carousel at the Arcola. That would explain why this Country Wife has some absolutely marvellous song and dance routines between scenes. The entire cast dances its way through the intricate set changes to a backdrop of abridged jazz-swing versions of pop “classics”. The choreography is in keeping with the 1920s “Bright Young Things” setting, for that is the period Messrs Fredericks and Charlesworth have alighted on to shed new light on Wycherley’s original written in 1675. The idea is that the privileged Bohemians of 1920s London, with their drink and drug excesses, their music and fancy dress parties and their sexual licentiousness, had a lot in common with their, probably, frock and wig wearing ancestors in Charles II’s time. Apparently Charly 2 was notoriously potty-mouthed.
The Restoration saw a reaction against the puritanism of the Protectorate. The theatre was restored, and frou-frou, baroque-y, Frenchiness was all the rage. Moliere, albeit hyped up, was the inspiration for the Restoration playwrights who satirised, albeit lovingly, etiquette, manners, class and sex. The Country Wife was at the more explicit end of the spectrum with its knob and fanny double entendres and it was banned from performance from 1753, as those miserable Georgians and Tories gained ascendance, until 1924.
Which circles back to the backdrop here. I can see that some of the characters here, the foppish dandy Sparkish, the roue Harry Horner, the horny cougar Lady Fidget and the eponymous country wife looking to widen her horizons as it were, Margery Pinchwife, might fit the Bright Young Things template. In contrast the cuckolds, Pinchwife and Sir Jasper Fidget are the older generation against which the young’uns rebel. But surely the Restoration, and these comedies which prick it, was a time a time of deception and hypocrisy. The look may have been flamboyant but there were presumably social mores which governed public behaviour, even if, in private, anything was up for grabs. In contrast those BYT’s revelled in their visible outrageousness and were flagrant self publicists, Made in Chelsea types but obviously not so dumb as fat Spence, toddler Jamie and Bonky. In short if Harry got horny in the 1920’s in this company, surely he would need no elaborate ruse to get his leg over.
I fear I maybe overthinking this but my point is I am not entirely sure the concept stacked up even if the look, especially Stewart Charlesworth’s set and costumes, movement, Heather Douglas, and sound, Neil Rigg, was appealing. Apparently Luke Fredericks took a few liberties with the text and cut his dramatis personae, I wouldn’t know, but it didn’t do any damage to the plot as far as I could make out. Mind you, even with plays I know well, I will always get familiar with the outline of the plot in advance. The SO thinks this is mad but I reckon if you have a rough idea of what is going on there is more joy to be had from performances, characters, insights, messages, spectacle and the like. And I am notoriously slow on the uptake.
In essence The Country Wife is a bunch of people looking for a shag, with randy Harry Horner, played rather too straight by Eddie Eyre, pretending he is impotent so he can get close to the ladies without arousing suspicion, Pinchwife’s young and “inexperienced” new, yokel wife Margery (a winning Nancy Sullivan) embracing all the City has to offer, and Harry’s droll chum Frank Harcourt (Leo Starr) nabbing the lovely Alithea (Siubhan Harrison) from under the nose of the camp chump Sparkish (Daniel Cane who sets out to, and succeeds, rather too obviously, in stealing the show). Mabel Clements caught the eye doubling up as knowing servant Lucy and vivacious Dainty Fidget, sister in law of Lady F, played by Sarah Lam who seemed to me to most embrace the tenor of the text. Richard Clews as the preposterously misogynistic Pinchwife, Sam Graham as Sir Jasper F and Joshua Hill as Harry’s other wing-man, Dorilant, completed the cast.
Now these plays are famous in part for offering the first proper meaty parts for women (no filth intended0, not dressed up boys, and for making stars of the actors and actresses who starred in them. You’ll have to pick you own way through the sexual politics, guided by the director, to decide if the women here have real agency, and how sympathetic Wycherley is to his three male archetypes, Horner’s libertine lad, Pinchwife’s brutal possessive or Harcourt’s upstanding hunk, but it does seem amenable to various interpretations. Most of all though it has to be funny I guess and this is where, maybe, this production, came a little unstuck. I can’t fault the pace, but what with so much to think about, including lighting from Sam Waddington which highlighted every aside to the audience, I didn’t think the lines were delivered with perhaps as much relish as they deserved.
The regular reader of this blog (hello!) will know that I claim not to like musicals. Based on the music and choreography, if not maybe the play itself, I will certainly look at for Morphic Graffiti’s forays into that genre. Especially if they reel out the proverbial row of tents. They look like they are good a that.