The Theatreguide.London Review
The School For Scandal
Barbican Theatre Summer 2011
I'm no purist. If a director wants to do an eighteenth-century play in modern dress, that's fine.
If she wants to have half the characters in period costume and half in jeans and trainers, go ahead.
If she's going to mix things up further by having the period characters drink Cokes, snort coke, get text messages and carry Gucci shopping bags, I won't complain.
If she starts things on a bare stage with the stagehands constructing the sets and the actors offering a fashion parade in their street clothes, I'll go along.
If she wants to drown the whole evening in flashing lights, film projections and pounding techno music, bring it on.
But it had damn well better work.
It had better illuminate the play, or add something, or make me aware of things a more conventional production wouldn't, or at the very least be fun.
Over the years Deborah Warner has given me some of the most powerful theatrical experiences I've ever had. But her forte has always been internal, guiding her actors to overwhelming emotional realities.
This time, along with designer Jeremy Herbert and others, she has decided to look outward, to overlay the play with theatrical razzle-dazzle. And I don't think the results are worth the effort.
There is a lot of fun to be had from The School For Scandal, but almost all of it comes from Sheridan's play and some of the performances. Warner's overlay adds far too little and too often gets in the way.
Sheridan's comic plot defies summary. At its centre is the discovery that the more pious of two brothers is actually a hypocrite while his dissolute sibling has a good heart.
But around them are the stories of an old man with a young wife, a rich man trying to decide who to make his heir, a woman plotting to destroy someone else's romance, and a whole bunch of people spreading malicious gossip about each other and everyone else just for the deviltry of it.
In the end the baddies are exposed, the goodies get the happiness they deserve, and we get to have enjoyed all the bitchiness and backstabbing without having to feel guilty about it.
All this comes through clearly and to great comic effect, which is a tribute to the director as well as her cast, but almost none of it - not even the fairly obvious point that these characters aren't terribly different from their modern counterparts - is helped along by the production effects.
There's a striking generation gap within the cast, with veterans Alan Howard as the old husband, John Shrapnel as the rich uncle and John McEnery as their co-conspirator all creating their characters and generating the comedy with such easy mastery that what are usually secondary roles take over the play.
Among the others, Aiden McArdle is adequate as the hypocrite and Katherine Parkinson considerably more than that as the headstrong young wife, but Leo Bill has been directed to be too frenetic in the Jim Carrey/Jerry Lewis mode for the good-hearted brother to win the sympathy he deserves.
It is altogether possible that all the staging effects that seem valueless to me will be exactly what excite you most about this production. Certainly Sheridan's play proves strong enough to survive them.
But that also means that it is strong enough not to have needed them, that a perfectly fine lily is being unnecessarily gilded.
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