Selina Cadell is on a one-woman mission to preserve Restoration comedy. Having already directed Congreve’s The Way of the World and Love for Love, she now brings us his earlier piece from 1693. While I applaud her enterprise, at a time when our comic heritage is woefully neglected, she has her work cut out with a play in which satire and melodrama are uneasily conjoined.
“The plot’s not the thing,” we are told in a jaunty, new prologue. But, with Congreve, you can hardly escape it. The main story involves an attempt by the scheming Maskwell and Lady Touchwood to thwart the marriage of two young lovers, Mellefont and Cynthia. But Congreve throws in a couple of subplots in which complaisant husbands are easily cuckolded by their randy wives. While the play is full of good scenes and observes the unities of time and place, you feel that Congreve is torn between exposing human credulity and exploring the intricacies of villainy.
As if the plot hadn’t sufficient confusion, Cadell then compounds it by casting Zoë Waites as Lady Touchwood and Cynthia. She is very good in both roles. As the former, she is all smouldering intensity and wields a fan as if it were a whip: as Cynthia she communicates unsimpering goodness. But in the scene where Cynthia overhears Lady T’s machinations, Waites is forced to lie on the ground and suggest by her posture which character is speaking. It simply adds one more complication to an already convoluted play.
The evening is at its best when the comedy takes wing. Much the funniest performance comes from Jenny Rainsford as Lady Plyant who denies her husband his conjugal pleasures by keeping him trussed up in blankets while pursuing her own fancies.
Preserving a mask of respectability, Rainsford’s whole body seems to twitch with unsatisfied desire and she dives eagerly at a putative lover announcing “nothing is so alluring as a fine thing”. Congreve’s point about female agency is reinforced by the character of Lady Froth whom Hannah Stokely neatly plays as a would-be poet who can’t wait to get her hands on Jonathan Broadbent’s sly coxcomb.
The production, like the play, works when it is dealing with lust and gullibility. It is less secure when tackling complex emotions. Edward MacLiam plays the double-dealing Maskwell as a trippingly insouciant figure rather than the cerebral villain of Congreve’s text: a mixture, as Robert Stephens showed in the play’s last revival at the National Theatre, of Hamlet and Iago. Even Congreve’s foolish cuckolds are prey to moments of pathos: the scene where Lady Plyant’s enforcedly celibate husband breaks down and confesses his need for a son should leave one moved rather than being treated, as it is here, as further evidence of male absurdity.
The evening has a good deal to commend it. Cadell makes the play’s sexual element explicit, uses the full extent of the space and generally casts well: Lloyd Everitt lends credibility to the over-credulous Mellefont and Jonathan Coy exudes righteous indignation as the tromped Lord Touchwood. But, while I’m glad to have seen this Restoration rarity, it is one of those occasions where the parts are infinitely better than the whole.
At the Orange Tree, Richmond, until 26 January.