The setting is modern in this version of The Country Wife; the word ‘country’ invariably pronounced with such a heavy emphasis on the first syllable that it can only be interpreted as coarse language contained within a more conventional word, with nothing that the prudish can do about it. The dialogue is largely faithful to the 17th-century original script, though it seemed evident to me that some scenes and minor characters have, for good or for ill, been excised.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course – without going into the minutiae of the plot, it was a Restoration comedy written for a Restoration audience, and although purists will object to cutting out passages, certain references to what were then current events will sound oblique at best, and utterly incomprehensible at worst. On the other hand, bringing the play into such a modern backdrop as this is frankly jarring on occasion. It may well have added to the humour of a more anarchic storyline, but here, The Country Wife being relatively tidy (as far as Restoration comedies are concerned) it simply struck me as odd. It was like watching Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, in which characters spoke of drawing swords but visually drew guns.
Speaking of humour, there was little that was laugh-out- loud funny; I side with those who speak of the play in terms of it being satirical and a sometimes scathing commentary on power, matrimony and the (mis)treatment of women in society. Jack Pinchwife (a convincing Alexander Gordon-Wood) can be quite absurd: “If we do not cheat women, they’ll cheat us,” is his bizarre philosophy.
Regrettably, at the performance I attended there were some technical issues that are impossible to overlook – at one point the stage was plunged into complete darkness, and not because of a power failure beyond the crew’s control. It is to the company’s credit that they carried on regardless.
Anyway, in such a fast-paced production, some lines come across as rushed and occasionally difficult to make out. Overall, though, it’s simultaneously pleasant and bawdy, and – credit where credit is due – it settles down after a while and finds a comfortable stride. The latter scenes in particular have a perfect rhythm.
There are, at least partly thanks to the contemporary setting, parallels to be seen in some of the themes explored. I suppose the play has lasted since its opening in 1675 at Theatre Royal Drury Lane because elements of the narrative are rather timeless. Deceit and deception still go on. People still cheat on their partners – and, more fundamentally – the age of the internet doesn’t change human passions and desires for love and companionship. The resultant arguments and counter-arguments in what would be Act Four Scene Three of a more traditional production are not, in places, very far removed at all from the confrontations seen in chat shows on television today, even if what precisely counts as scandalous has naturally changed over time.
This production functions well as an ensemble piece. That said, I enjoyed watching Katie Anne as Mrs Pinchwife. I initially thought of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls; both characters have an inner depth and intelligence that betrays their seemingly fragile exteriors. Harcourt’s (John Celeu) wooing of Alethea (Franciska Bijon Steiner) is satisfyingly persuasive, while Max Digby Carpenter as Harry Horner is suitably dashing.
This is certainly a very different rendering of a Restoration comedy. To bring it right into the present day may not appeal to everyone, but I found the general lack of exaggeration and overemphasis more appealing than I originally expected. Subtle but effective – and, above all, accessible.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Acting Gymnasium
The Country Wife
Directed by Gavin McAlinden
Newly returned from France, young dandy Harry Horner spreads false news of his own impotency in order to conquer as many of the ladies as possible.
Meanwhile Pinchwife, just back from honeymoon with his beautiful and naïve new trophy bride Margery, has vowed to keep cuckoldry from his marriage bed.
Following the success last year of Romeo and Juliet, The Acting Gymnasium return to Theatro Technis with a new modern, imagining of Wycherley’s infamous Restoration Comedy.
Contains strong sexual references and not recommended for an under 16 audience.
Monday 2nd May to Saturday 7th May at 7:30pm