The Theatreguide.London Review
Way Of The World
Donmar Theatre Spring 2018
William Congreve's 1700 play, generally cited as the finest of Restoration comedies of manners, comes across in this new production as a dark and cynical view of social mores, lightened only by occasional flashes of wit and broad slapstick. And it is more than three hours long.
Consider this somewhat simplified plot: Mirabell, the hero, has married off his former mistress to his best friend Fainall because he feared she might be pregnant.
Fainall was willing to take the chance because she came with a large fortune, which he has been systematically stripping, spending it on his mistress Marwood, who in turn has her eye on Mirabell.
Mirabell is currently wooing Millamant, in part because she is the most witty and attractive woman around, but also because she too is rich.
Meanwhile he's been flirting with old Lady Wishfort because she controls both Mrs Fainall's and Millimant's fortunes, and now plans to embarrass her off his hands and out of the money by tricking her into falling for his manservant in disguise.
And, not to be undone, Fainall and Marwood join forces to get revenge and cash by blackmailing everyone out of all their fortunes with the threat of public exposure and ridicule.
I've left off a half-dozen other characters and their subplots, mainly there for comic relief. But you might well ask why a comedy needs comedy relief.
Were it not that some of them are wittier than others, there would be nobody in the main plot you could unequivocally find attractive or sympathetic.
Director James Macdonald doesn't appear to have chosen to redefine the play more darkly than usual – rather, he and his cast just seem to have trouble finding the wit and artifice that would temper and disguise the darkness.
We are repeatedly told that Mirabell and Millamant stand above and apart from the others, but we don't really see it.
Even the celebrated scene in which they lay out the terms by which they'd consider marriage – mainly, not to interfere in each other's lives any more than is inescapable – lacks the sparkle of a well-matched pair enjoying the sparring of wits or the delight of that staple of rom-coms since Shakespeare's Benedick and Beatrice, a couple discovering what has been obvious to us from the start, that they're made for each other.
Geoffrey Streatfeild is a rather bland and colourless hero, never really dominating any of his scenes, while Justine Mitchell gives Millamant a very modern and casual style of speaking (and a touch of Geena Davis goofiness) that is very attractive but completely out of key with the more formal speechifying of the rest of the cast, who almost pronounce the quotation marks around their epigrams.
Some of the comic-relief secondary characters, notably Fisayo Akinade as a fop and Christian Patterson as a bluff country squire, are fun.
But in the main plot only Haydn Gwynne as the cartoonishly vain and randy Wishfort captures a laugh-out-loud comic level of silliness, along with a touch of emotional fragility that makes her unexpectedly the most sympathetic character in the play.
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