London’s hedonistic fashionistas are hard at it. To Grant Olding’s 21st-century electro soundtrack, Tom Hardy flashes a built, undressed chest and tattoos at the camera and flaunts himself across the sheets at pouting, bustiered, high-heeled models. What, exactly, has all this bare-faced chic to do with a play set in 1676? A great deal, as it turns out. Director Nicholas Hytner has, in every sense, refashioned George Etheredge’s satire of soulless society posturing to startlingly adroit effect. Yet for all the invigorating zest of its conception, something has gone slightly awry in the execution.
Obsessed with surface, sexual satisfaction and public preening — and that’s just the men — the 17th-century fops and rakes translate flawlessly into easily recognizable, contemporary types. Vicki Mortimer’s hyper-elegant costumes — every-color-so-long-as-it’s-black men’s suits, hot silk dresses and giant houndstooth check trouser suits for the women — vividly convey the lust for show as this clutch of self-serving characters high-step their way through a dazzling complicated assortment of loves and lusts.
Although the play is firmly set in London, one plot strand concerns a love match between Hardy’s ultra-smooth Dorimant and Amber Agar’s poised Harriet, a seemingly naive young woman newly arrived from Yorkshire (i.e. the deeply unsophisticated countryside). Making the play even more relevant, Hytner has smartly delineated the country characters by casting them with Asian actors (Yorkshire, aptly, has one of the U.K.’s largest Asian populations).
Barely a speech goes by that doesn’t underpin the wit of the choice, not least the plot of an arranged marriage that Old Bellair (Madhav Sharma) is forcing upon his son Bellair (Amit Shah) who is secretly engaged to Emilia (played by white actress Abby Ford).
The typical precision of Hytner’s direction allows all the progress of the various intertwined plots to register, which is particularly important in a play whose central character, Dorimant, is involved with three women.
The strongest of these, by far, is Nancy Carroll’s vengeful, fired-up Mrs Loveit. Like Katharine Hepburn with a crossbow, Carroll strides about shooting looks and lines at the men and women in her sights with exhilaratingly deadly accuracy.
She’s matched by Rory Kinnear as the title character, Sir Fopling Flutter. A less skilled actor would be dwarfed by his deliciously absurd, zeitgeist wardrobe — everything from a torrent of tassels to expensively over-the-top, rap-style street-gear. Kinnear not only grabs such extravagance to build character, he uses it to preen, swagger and dominate the action.
As he proved in Hytner’s production of Samuel Adamson’s “Southwark Fair,” Kinnear is expert at bringing out depth in comedy. Like all true comic actors, he can stretch time. Given the right set-up, he can hold a moment or a reaction almost endlessly without overbalancing a scene. Even at Fopling’s most grandiosely preposterous moments, (he does a hilarious number at the piano), Kinnear allows you to glimpse vulnerability.
He and Carroll have perfectly placed voices that command the stage and aud’s attention. Their ease, however, points up weaknesses elsewhere.
Although Fopling is the title character, he is the epitome of the play rather than its driving force. That responsibility lies with Dorimant. For all his attractiveness and speed, however, Hardy feels more part of the world than its leader.
Bertie Carvel brings splendidly controlled zest to Dorimant’s knowing, gay friend Medley and a beadily pragmatic Penny Ryder completely lives up to her character’s name Pert. Elsewhere, however, several of the perfs are unfocused, with actors soft on cues in a play that needs tigerish rigor and zip.
But it’s not entirely their fault. Comedy loves small spaces — lines and scenarios need to bounce off the walls — and Olivier’s unwelcoming cavern of an amphitheater can sap energies. Despite the production’s engaging dramatization of an amusing, wholly convincing world, too many of the cast fail to heat up the space.