Urgent, bass-driven contempo music floods the auditorium; the costumes modishly mix bare flesh, tattoos and flouncing period frocks; the lighting is mainly acid-green; the actors shriek. Deborah Warner’s strenuously modern production of Sheridan’s celebrated 1777 comedy doesn’t need subtler direction, it needs Ritalin.
Sheridan’s witty demolition of a fashion-obsessed society horribly addicted to gossip, rumor and scandal-mongering isn’t exactly hard to fathom. Not for nothing did he create three characters with the family name “Surface.” But in case anyone in the audience should unaccountably miss this, Warner is permanently on hand to signpost everything from the get-go.
In addition to quite literal signposting — the location of each scene is presented handwritten on projections on Jeremy Herbert’s self-consciously sketchy set — Sheridan’s written prologue is replaced by an additional 20-minute pre-curtain catwalk sequence with the actors strutting and sneering down front holding up placards with phrases and ideas about fashion.
One the play proper begins, it seems as if the business of over-emphasis is going to be sustained throughout the performances. That’s certainly the case in the opening scenes with plotting Lady Sneerwell (Matilda Ziegler) stopping to snort coke or order around her manservant Snake (bare-chested Gary Sefton).
Yes, these men and women are intentionally shallow and mean-spirited, and the grandiloquent phrase-making of Restoration comedy dialogue requires high energy. But the more these actors bray and squeal, the less attention we pay.
As a result, more composed performances like Vicki Pepperdine’s gleeful, faux-pious Mrs. Candour register far more strongly. Better still are Alan Howard and Katherine Parkinson as Lord and Lady Teazle whose May-to-December marriage is the pivot of the play.
Howard’s glorious mix of hangdog, gloomy demeanour and almost sing-song delivery rivets attention. His peevish character’s self-belief is as comically all-consuming as it is misguided. He’s partnered by Katherine Parkinson, more shrewd than shrewish, who beautifully calibrates Lady Teazle’s gradual loss of naivety. The play’s famous scene of double duplicity with the two of them simultaneously fooling and being fooled becomes the production’s highpoint, because they resist the prevalent urge to overplay and instead go for truth.
The effort involved in the production is there for all to see. Leo Bill as a remarkably raddled, rakish Charles Surface (who turns out, rather unconvincingly, to be the good guy), goes at his role with manic zest. But after only a handful of previews his performance is already fraying, as evidenced by a voice wearing out with the strain.
Whoever minted the gag “the secret of comedy is… timing” wasn’t talking about duration, but it’s worth noting that Warner’s bombastic production of this classic comedy comes in at an unpardonable three and a quarter hours, with not nearly enough laughter.