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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Rivals
Barbican Theatre, Winter 2000-01

Lindsay Posner's transfer from Stratford is that far-too-rare thing for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a production blessedly free of superimposed directorial concept, allowing the play itself to shine through.

And that itself is a fresh-enough concept to make it an almost total delight.

Sheridan's 18th-century comedy satirises a range of social types and affectations. Two rich, attractive young people are in love, but because she has read too many romantic novels, he has to pretend to be poor so she can fantasise eloping and living in tragic poverty.

When their families, not knowing of their love, arrange a marriage for them, it spoils all her fun.

There are several subplots, but the main surrounding comedy comes from his father, a gruff military man who proves an old softie at heart, and especially her aunt Mrs Malaprop, who mangles the language ("He's the very pineapple of perfection") with every sentence.

The production began in Stratford's small Swan Theatre, and at times it seems a bit lost on the huge Barbican stage. The actors, too, may seem a bit lost at first, but we soon realize that director Posner is letting us discover their characters rather than telegraphing them artificially from the start.

David Tennant really comes into his own as the young lover once we see the inventiveness and bravura with which he plays up to his beloved's romantic fantasies or butters up her aunt.

Benjamin Whitrow delightfully surprises us by playing the father as a man who is dull when calm but inspired to comic eloquence when angry, far brighter than he seems at first, and a bit of a randy old rogue.

Wendy Craig is not the funniest Mrs Malaprop I've ever seen - that was Geraldine McEwan at the NT a decade ago - but she has the inspired courage to just speak the lines, without trying to push or underline the jokes. As a result, they sneak up on us, and are all the funnier for that.

Minor characters also benefit from the decision to underplay. As the hero's insanely jealous friend, Ian Hughes revels in his own paranoia, working himself up to a decorous frenzy at the thought of his girlfriend's dancing that sounds remarkably like a 20th-century fogy on rock'n'roll.

Des McAleer plays the comic Irishman without a hint of accent or stock mannerisms, and thus lets us discover his other funny qualities, like his obsession with the rules of genteel duelling.

Only the two leading women are hurt by this mode, with neither the romantic heroine (Emily Raymond) nor her sensible friend (Jacqueline Defferary) sufficiently individualised or characterised to contribute much to the general jollity.

The decision to get out of the play's way is virtually revolutionary for the RSC. On the basis of its success here, let us hope that the idea spreads.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Rivals - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2000
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