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Review: The Way Of The World By William Congreve | Donmar Warehouse

Tom Mison (Fainall) and Jenny Jules (Mrs Marwood) in The Way of the World at the Donmar Warehouse, director James Macdonald. Photo Johan Persson
Tom Mison (Fainall) and Jenny Jules (Mrs Marwood) in The Way of the World at the Donmar Warehouse, director James Macdonald. Photo Johan Persson

There are benefits to seeing productions like The Way of the World, a solidly faithful rendering of a Restoration comedy. It provides an opportunity to see a play of this nature (this one premiered in March 1700) with the original text. It’s likely there have been some minor changes made for this production, but the fact remains that this is not an adaptation of the play written by William Congreve (1670-1729). It has not been re-set in a different century, and there are no forced references to a certain 2017 referendum or the current (at the time of writing) occupant of the White House. Precisely how relevant these proceedings are is rightly left for the audience to determine, though there’s something strangely timeless about preserving personal reputations and avoiding scandal.

I do not know enough about early 1700s attire amongst members of high society to vouch for the authenticity of the costumes on display in this production. They do seem in keeping with the era being portrayed, as do the wigs. As does the script, come to think of it, rather grand and majestic as it is at times. Millamant (Justine Mitchell) and Mirabell (Geoffrey Streatfeild) hash out terms and conditions for a potential marriage – the confrontation is a hoot, and gloriously unsentimental.

Fisayo Akinade’s Witwoud possessed a marvellous stage presence from his very first line until his very last – I loved one of his lines about Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne) hating Mirabell “worse than a Quaker hates a parrot” – while Petulant (Simon Manyonda) is very much, well, petulant.

But the biggest laughs come courtesy of Gwynne’s Lady Wishfort, positioning and repositioning herself in preparation for the arrival of someone whom she would very much like to impress. One wonders how much has really changed, as she looks at herself in the mirror and pities herself; there’s comic overkill in her make-up and dress sense, but she wouldn’t look out of place on the catwalk at London Fashion Week.

The pacing takes some getting used to and I wasn’t the only one at the performance I attended who found it hard going. It’s sluggish by modern standards, and plot-wise takes the scenic route – on the other hand, each character is well developed and there are no weak links in this admirable company. There are some amusing punchlines to be enjoyed – observations, broadly in the style of Pam Ayres, about marriage and the ties that bind those who enter into it, went down particularly well with the audience. But, perhaps partly because of the early eighteenth-century vocabulary, it is sometimes difficult to follow in detail, though the general gist of what is going on can be reasonably grasped without any prior knowledge of the play.

The company in The Way of the World at the Donmar Warehouse, director James Macdonald, designer Anna Fleischle. Photo Johan Persson
The company in The Way of the World at the Donmar Warehouse, director James Macdonald, designer Anna Fleischle. Photo Johan Persson

Fainall (Tom Mison) describes Sir Wilfull Witwoud (a delightful Christian Patterson) thus: “half-brother to this Witwoud by a former wife, who was sister to my Lady Wishfort, my wife’s mother.” There’s time enough to work it out on the train home, but, sat in the theatre, one can only smile at such a deliberately fanciful description as the dialogue rolls on. Rather like John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), the happy ending seems a little forced, but in the end, resolving problems is the way of the world. An assured and glamorous production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Family, money, desire: the rules of the game, the way of the world.
Lady Wishfort’s sprawling, dysfunctional family are driven by desire – there’s everything to lose and six thousand pounds to gain. Congreve’s glorious ensemble of characters battle it out in this exposing, satirical comedy where everyone needs to win just to get by.

29 March 2018 – 26 May 2018
THE WAY OF THE WORLD
By William Congreve Share
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