The Whisperers” is a delightful conversation across the centuries between two female playwrights, one launching her career by doing loving service to another who was sadly under-appreciated in her own time.
The remarkable story behind the play could itself make an interesting drama: Rising young Dublin-based writer and actor Elizabeth Kuti (she played the title role in the recent Abbey production of “The Colleen Bawn”), in her doctoral study of 18th-century women playwrights, came across a fragment of a play called “A Trip to Bath” by Irishwoman Frances Sheridan, mother of famed playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Frances herself enjoyed a promising career as a novelist and playwright — her first play was produced by Garrick at Drury Lane — but stopped writing in 1765 after Garrick rejected “A Trip to Bath” and died a year later, at age 42. Only the first three acts of Sheridan’s play remain (it’s unclear whether she actually finished the play); Kuti wrote a final two acts, and the Dublin-based company Rough Magic is producing the whole under the new title “The Whisperers.”
The completed play speaks with one voice but not of one sensibility, which is where its extraordinary achievement lies.
While Kuti creates seamless links in plot and character between the two halves of the play and it all ends up where one feels Sheridan was heading, Kuti’s half moves more briskly, her jokes have more zing, and she handles the resolution of the plots with a deep appreciation of our contemporary need for psychological depth and believability. Just as we’ve settled into the arch, now-stilted mannerisms of 18th-century comedy, the play deepens and softens into something much more recognizable, fully drawn, and emotionally satisfying.
The bulk of the play takes place in Lady Surface’s guesthouse in Bath, where a conflagration of well-born Brits gather to gossip and pose. Among them are two titled but penniless thirtysomething lovers, Lady Filmot and Lord Stewkly, who connive to seduce two rich, guileless youths, Edward and Lucy, who are themselves in love and planning to marry.
Meanwhile, Edward’s witless father and windbag uncle tussle over the appropriateness of the boy’s match with Filmot; Champignion, a pretentious, rich French plantation owner, makes his moves on the aloof and secretly destitute Lady Bell Aircastle; Lucy’s mother, Mrs. Tryfort — a clear predecessor of Mrs. Malaprop from Richard Brinsley’s “The Rivals” — fusses and pretentiously misspeaks (“Dear sir, you mustn’t incommode yourself”); and the mysterious Stapleton complains about the noise and remains above it all.
While the play, on the surface, is all about love and manners, what it’s really about is money — everyone is either manipulating or being manipulated for profit.
Sheridan’s manuscript ends at the point where the setup is complete and resolution imminent: Filmot and Stewkly have spun their webs and are ready to pounce. But their plot is not to come to fruition, and the deus ex machina comes in the form of Stapleton, who, we discover, is not the outsider that he pretends to be. While his intervention is credible and the complicated results clearly and cleverly drawn out, one does wish that his significance could have been hinted at sooner.
Indeed play and production’s main flaw are over-reverence to Sheridan. Kuti has barely touched Sheridan’s writing, with the result that the first half comes across as over-long and a few of the plot twists in the second half seem to fly out of nowhere.
Lynne Parker’s production, as well, comes across as too languid and under-energized in the first half. While this is probably intended to communicate the indulgence and indolence of the environment, the production initially doesn’t command attention. But things take off wonderfully after the intermission. The actors seem more excited by and committed to where the stories end up than where they began.
The handsome cast is by and large excellent; Andrea Irvine, Pauline Hutton, and Robert Price stand out as the supremely confident Filmot, earnest Lucy and thoughtful Stapelton. The production design skillfully bridges then and now: both Blaithin Sheerin’s flexible set of platforms and freestanding columns and Jacqueline Kobler’s delightful costumes mingle period shapes with contemporary materials, and Bell Helicopter’s sound design mixes the sounds of harpsichords and synthesizers.
This act of theatrical regeneration also represents something of a rebirth for Rough Magic, Dublin’s premier independent theater company in the ’80s and early ’90s, whose future has been in question since the departure of producer Siobhan Bourke earlier this year. Now helmed by executive producer Deborah Aydon (late of London’s Bush Theater) and original a.d. Parker, the company seems reenergized. It has already booked this production into the Traverse for the Edinburgh Fringe after its five-city Irish tour.
“The Whisperers” is a rich viewing experience that grows even more resonant in retrospect, a generous gift from one writer to another and a very wise commentary on shifting sensibilities and enduring foibles. One hopes it will find a wider audience beyond these shores.