It’s pantomime season at the Royal Shakespeare Company. There’s slapstick, farce, garish costumes, even someone playing the spoons. But this isn’t your standard festive fare. Rather, it’s William Congreve’s late Restoration comedy of 1695, Love for Love.
The principal problem with Selina Cadell’s new production in the Swan Theatre is that it insists on performing “Restoration-ness” rather than the play itself. By “Restoration-ness” I mean the equation of late seventeenth-century (and for that matter, eighteenth-century) comedy with high jinks, gestural hyperbole, and an isn’t-this-all-a-bit-of-a-lark attitude. “Restoration-ness” is about beating spectators over the head with an idea of fun. Like the neurotic party host it feels the need constantly to tell us just what a good time we must be having.
Cadell’s Love for Love is by no means alone in this regard. It isn’t even the worst offender. The National Theatre’s recent production of Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (dir. Simon Godwin) strained desperately to fill the vast space of the Olivier Theatre – a space singularly unsuited to Restoration comedy – with overblown gags and characterisation. And worst of all, and in the same problematic venue, Jamie Lloyd’s 2012 production of She Stoops to Conquer staged Goldsmith’s drama of class and social-sexual role-play as a kind of monstrous all-singing, all-dancing revue.
The paradox of the performance idiom I’m describing is that its unflinching onstage confidence in fact is symptomatic of a deep-seated anxiety about what to do with these plays, how to make them engaging for the twenty-first century – how, in essence, to ensure that they’re met with laughter. The audience of Cadell’s Love for Love laugh a lot and loudly but much of the time what they’re laughing at are cheap gags or slapstick sequences that aren’t suggested or warranted by the dialogue and that, at times, even run against the grain of the words and situation of the play. The humour of Congreve’s text – and Love for Love is a funny play – simply isn’t to be trusted. Nor, I might add, is the audience.
So the slightest hint of an innuendo has to involve some vigorous combination of thrusting, grinding, and slobbering (“This is about sex. Did you get that? Did you? Did you?”). In Act One , each mention of the name Ben – the seafaring brother of Valentine, the play’s witty but prodigal protagonist – is repeated with emphasis by all on stage, while in Act Four each of the many uses of the word “mad” (the plot, at this point, is all about feigned insanity) is immediately accompanied by the call of a cuckoo. Congreve’s heroine Angelica, is clever and at times delightfully ironic; she’s the one character in the play, it might be argued, that is never ridiculous. But here she calls for a carriage and then prances off making neighing noises, accompanied by her maid, who – à la Monty Python – uses the halves of a coconut shell to mimic the sound of a horse’s hooves.
Worst of all is the production’s treatment of the fop of the piece, Tattle, “the half-witted beau”. This is a character who professes himself to be the soul of discretion but, compelled by irrepressible vanity, just can’t help broadcasting (and embellishing) his amours at every opportunity. Played with undeniable energy by Jonathan Broadbent, this distinctive aspect of Tattle’s character – that he repeatedly blabs in the very act of insisting he won’t – is almost entirely smothered by breathless, elaborately-conceived slapstick routines. So, at the close of one of the best scenes in the play, as Tattle first instructs Miss Prue, an “awkward, silly country girl”, in the ways of flirtation and sexual intrigue and then pursues her to her bedchamber, we descend – gratuitously – into the absurd: amid general bellowing and chaos as Tattle and Miss Prue (played by Jenny Rainsford) cavort around, on hurtles one of the company riding a stuffed sheep on wheels, which is in turn chased by a puppet sheepdog, before Tattle is finally stopped in his tracks when a floating pink petticoat is dropped from above onto his unsuspecting head. What all this had to do with Congreve’s play is beyond me.
I’m not a purist. I’m not demanding museum theatre. Companies absolutely need to find ways of staging Restoration drama that engage today’s audiences. Neither am I making a plea for blind fidelity to the text. I’d love to see Britain’s major theatrical institutions genuinely experiment with plays of this period. By all means take them apart and put them back together again in some new shape or form. But what I’m witnessing isn’t experimentation (indeed, it’s archly conservative in artistic terms) and it isn’t really an attempt to make these plays speak to the twenty-first century either. Rather, it’s an evasion of the challenges presented by a work such as Love for Love and a pointed refusal to trust the intelligence of the audience. How can we elicit laughter without entirely jettisoning what makes a play like this one worth staging in the first place – its particular rhythm, tonal nuances, and different and sometimes competing kinds of comedy? If companies aren’t interested in addressing this question in performance then it has to be asked: why stage Restoration drama at all? If all we’re after is romping and tomfoolery there’s no need to revive Congreve.
The shame here is that Cadell’s production Love for Love does have much to recommend it. Horsing around aside, Justine Mitchell is a very fine Angelica: playful and no-nonsense in equal measure. Right from the start we see who’s really in charge, as Mitchell, not yet dressed for her part, snatches the prologue from the hands of Tom Turner (Valentine) and reads it with great éclat. Turner is also good, especially in the scenes where, with a flickering tongue, he counterfeits madness. And Nicholas Le Prevost’s Sir Sampson Legend is suitably irascible as Valentine’s father. In the excitement of his early scenes, Le Prevost’s enunciation lets him down, and there are one or two moments where he too catches the bug for glossing already unmissable innuendos with rapid pelvic thrusts, but his performance otherwise is a great example of how to work with, rather than overwrite, the comic dialogue. The scene in which he proposes to Angelica – a declaration engineered by and to suit her own agenda – is by far the best of this production.
Also impressive is the way Cadell’s production uses space. Tom Piper’s set, which includes a proscenium arch and curtains (both deliberately flimsy) to distinguish forestage and rear stage, gives the Swan the flavour of a Restoration playhouse. And perhaps the most compelling aspect of the production is Cadell’s Brechtian take on the material and typographical conventions of Restoration theatricality. The audience enters the theatre to the sights and sounds of a bustling company switching the scenery of yesterday’s play for today’s and chatting with spectators as they do so; throughout the play, a rack of costumes can be seen at the back of the stage; and at the start of each scene a cloth banner stating the location in question drops down and is read aloud. The production is far better at such meta-theatrical gestures, at evoking some sense of a late seventeenth-century working company of players, than it is at staging Congreve’s comedy itself.
Yet the big questions remain. Why stage Love for Love? Having had a good laugh, what, as an audience, are we to take away from this production? There’s a darker undertone to Congreve’s play: Valentine has an illegitimate child for whom he fails to provide; the “free-speaker” Scandal (played here with incongruous cheeriness by Robert Cavanah) offers us a troublingly cynical, not to say troublingly gendered, take on human nature; young and old, parent and child, are hopelessly and perhaps dangerously at odds; and the world seems to have been given over to the power of the contract. All of this is lost in Cadell’s production, all of it replaced by merry surface – and without any awareness that this is but surface. Even the quiet but important punitive dimension of Congreve’s finale is overturned. Tattle and Mrs Frail – as her name suggests, “a woman on the town” – are tricked into marrying one other, each believing that they’re making a more advantageous (read profitable) match. Those driven entirely by money fail just as those who finally act in the name of “love” (a complicated word in this play) succeed. Tattle and Frail deserve one another and their mutual uneasiness at the close reminds us that there is satire in this play. But punishment becomes reward in Cadell’s production. Frisky to the last, Tattle and Frail are shown to be delighted with the outcome. These are shiny, happy people. Heaven forbid anyone poop the party.
Love for Love continues at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon until January 22nd 2016. Tickets are available from the Royal Shakespeare Company website.
For an additional – in some ways contrasting – review of the production, see the website of former BSECS President, Penelope Corfield.