Greeting the audience at the start of Knaves’s revival of Charles Macklin’s farce Love a la Mode (1759), the actor representing Mordecai expresses his pleasure at seeing ‘so many hardcore eighteenth-century fans here tonight’. While a fitting address for the company with whom I was joined for my viewing at Smock Alley, a group of academics up in Dublin for day one of the ‘Irish and the London Stage Conference’, it instantly became clear that this was not a production designed purely to impress the ‘hardcore’ eighteenth-centuryist, while baffling and boring the less intimately acquainted with Macklin and his age: far from it. Rather, by presenting the perfect blend of laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy, dynamically incorporated allusions to historical context, and crudely drawn characters that embellish as well as challenge eighteenth-century stereotypes in true Macklin style, Knaves’s production of Love a la Mode offers an impressively referential, while universally accessible, recreation of Macklin’s theatrical world, that leaves both the contemporary theatregoer, and the ‘hardcore’ eighteenth-centuryist, in stitches of laughter.
Irish actor and playwright Charles Macklin had a long and turbulent career. Alongside his triumphs on stage, including his celebrated portrayal of Shakespeare’s Shylock, and the popularity of his two most successful comedies – Love a la Mode and The Man of the World – he was renowned also for the dramas he created off the stage: notably, the murder he committed in Drury Lane’s green room in 1735, and the riot he provoked in the same theatre’s auditorium in 1772. These scandalous events are not withheld from the audience, but enticingly shared in a lively and novel prologue, spoken by the play’s Harlequin figure. Excellently performed by Honi Cooke, the Harlequin is an original and clever addition to Knaves’s production, introduced by director Colm Summers. On the one hand, the Harlequin serves as historical and dramatic mediator, providing intriguing snippets into Macklin’s life and times, and melodiously translating Georgian and theatrical terminology. On the other, she takes on the role of quasi-director: bellowing instructions from an original promptbook of Macklin’s Love a la Mode, she attempts humorously and frantically to control a seemingly unprofessional and disorderly cast, consisting, as we were informed, of a nervous ‘Understudy’, brought in last minute to depict the play’s Irish representative, Sir Callaghan O’Brallaghan.
Sir Callaghan, played by Fionn Foley, is the hero of Macklin’s play about duplicity. Throughout the farce, he battles with three other men to win the heart of Charlotte, a woman of fortune. While his rivals prove themselves deceitful, abandoning their interest in Charlotte following the false declaration from her father, Theodore, that her wealth has been lost, Sir Callaghan maintains his affections for Charlotte following Theodore’s trick, and is subsequently rewarded for his integrity. Taking on such an important role at such little notice, it is only to be expected that the Understudy might appear a little shaky. In Knaves’s meta-theatrical masterpiece however, shakiness becomes full-blown convulsiveness. The Understudy provides many of the play’s greatest comic moments, however I, and the rest of the audience, have been sworn to secrecy by the play’s dramaturge Dr David O’Shaughnessey (Trinity College, Dublin), so I cannot give too much away.
Whimsical as they are, the farcical, slapstick moments provided by the Understudy do not purely raise a laugh: they contribute substantially to the production’s artful interaction with the play’s cultural context, while also reproducing the zero to hero narrative, so popular with modern-day theatregoers. Testament to his range and versatility, Foley’s Sir Callaghan is responsible for the play’s most comic moments, as well as its most moving. When tasked with serenading Charlotte towards the end of the play, Sir Callaghan does so with such skill and emotion, that both Charlotte and the audience are filled with admiration for the talented Irishman, and almost reduced to tears. Though obliged, as I have mentioned, to remain somewhat cryptic about the significance of this Understudy-with-a-twist, I must celebrate the figure as an ingenious addition to Knaves’s Love a la Mode: one that cleverly allegorises the mid-eighteenth-century replacement of the inept and clumsy Irish stereotype with the triumphant alternative championed by Macklin; and one that appeases twenty-first century tastes, by indulging our love for the underdog. Eighteenth-century specialist or not, one rejoices to see Sir Callaghan win the girl, and the Understudy excel in his role, as such triumphs had at first seemed impossible.
The audience’s investment in Sir Callaghan’s love story is remarkably aided by the fondness we are made to feel for the object of his affection: Charlotte, played by Caitlin Scott. Like Foley’s Sir Callaghan, Scott’s Charlotte raised guffaws among the audience. Again, it was not so much the comic excellence of Macklin’s script that enabled this response, as it was Knaves’s theatrical innovations. An effective acting component incorporated into Knaves’s production was the use of ad-libbing: a technique that perfectly reflects the informality of the Georgian theatre experience, while also providing amusing insights into the characters’ unmediated responses to certain situations and figures. Nowhere is the effectiveness of this technique exemplified more clearly than in Charlotte’s unscripted reactions to her wooers’ attempts at seduction. Discussing her suitors in her opening dialogue with Theodore (who, in the hands of Morgan Cooke, was the epitome of the loving, cautious father), then meeting her suitors face to face, Scott’s impromptu delivery of wonderfully subtle, yet entirely meaningful asides, along with demonstrative facial expressions, saw the audience warm to her character immediately, delighting in her frank, comically timed judgements of her over-zealous admirers. This unreserved expressiveness, combined with Charlotte’s endearing mispronunciations of Sir Callaghan’s name (he is varyingly addressed with anachronisms including ‘Sir Jackie Chan’ and ‘Sir La La Land’), rendered Charlotte a favourite with the modern-day crowd, and a worthy match for the play’s eventual hero.
Like Sir Callaghan, each of Charlotte’s rival suitors, Sir Archy MacSarcasm, Squire Groom, and Mordecai, engage with eighteenth-century stereotypes, presenting far from subtle mockeries of easily recognisable character types. Leonard Buckley’s Sir Archy, dressed in a Tartan kilt, speaking in a thick, aggressive and amusingly overdone Scottish accent, and conveniently sporting ginger hair, is every inch the satirical Scot. Norma Howard’s Squire Groom, kitted out in a waistcoat, top-hat, and riding boots (garments that give the actress a masculine, as well as gentrified appearance), speaking in drunken slurs, and moving about the stage in an uncouth, precarious, and clearly intoxicated manner, is unmistakable as an uncultured English squire. Knaves’s Mordecai is unusual, in that he is not replicated quite so accurately from Macklin’s original script. While Macklin’s Mordecai had ridiculed the ‘beau Jew’, his religious identity being the butt of many jokes, it is his foppishness, much more so than his Jewishness, that Knaves chooses to parody. Mirroring the stereotypical fop, Colm Gleeson’s character wears a ruffled red jacket, half-unbuttoned shirt, velvety red tights, and a lavish Georgian wig. He struts around the stage delivering elaborate Italian phrases, and performing a series of ostentatious gestures. By embellishing his portrayal as a Dandy, and downplaying his status as a Jew, Summers indicates clear awareness of modern day sensitivities towards anti-Semitism.
Knaves’s production was presented at Smock Alley as a ‘work-in-progress’, and suggestions for improvement were strongly invited. Despite great effort, I have struggled to come up with any real constructive criticism. The denouement, perhaps, could be slightly condensed, so that the action finishes a touch sooner after the unravelling of Theodore’s trick, but this is a minor complaint. Undoubtedly, there is far more to be commended in Knaves’s performance of Love a la Mode than there is to be faulted. I came to the theatre hoping to be exhilarated by the dynamism and chaos expected of a Hanoverian farce. The high energy and physicality of the performers, mixed with Summers’s inventive dramaturgical strategies, ensured that this was the case. Under the organisation of O’Shaughnessy, Knaves’s production of Love a la Mode will return to Dublin for a two-week run in the summer of 2018. This arrangement attests to the play’s success and broad appeal. The Knaves theatre team have done great justice to one of British theatre’s most famous eighteenth-century playwrights, and long may they continue to build upon his legacy.
Love a la Mode after Macklin was performed at Smock Alley Theatre on 17th February 2017 and will return to Dublin for a two-week run in summer 2018.