Exuberant, engaging, and enchantingly authentic, Dominic Hill’s new production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals is a tour de force of comedic hilarity that fills the theatre with all the sparkling wit and and energy that eighteenth-century drama has to offer. From the shrill resonance of the romance-obsessed Lydia Languish (Lucy Briggs-Owen), to the self-torturing suspicions the love-lorn Faulkland (Nicholas Bishop) entertains of his fiancée Julia Melville (Jessica Hardwick), every member of this supremely talented cast infuses their character with a vitality that renders fresh and accessible one of Sheridan’s most entertaining and best-loved comedies.
The play glided into life with deceptive tranquillity: as the audience settled, various cast members were already milling about upon an open stage and gathering items from clothing racks bursting with brocade coats, cloaks, waistcoats, skirts and even a set of stays. This initiated a dramatic energy that escalated through the performance, with the curtain never being lowered and the stage never left empty save for during the interval. The graceful ease with which the audience was apparently included in the cast’s preparations also enhanced the sense of friendly conviviality which, perhaps paradoxically, most strongly characterises a play that centres upon romantic rivalry.
This cultivation of a profoundly character-driven dramatic experience was further enhanced by the unobtrusiveness of the set design, which consisted of an elegant compromise between an eighteenth-century preoccupation with props and contemporary aesthetics. Interiors were largely restricted to tea-tables and tavern tankards, as well as the occasional full-length mirror (left empty of glass, perhaps as a symbolic reflection of the vacuity of the characters who gaze into them). Otherwise scene changes were suggested through reconfigurations in the arrangement of various sized arches, designed to resemble giant picture frames, which were lowered at various points upon the stage so as to direct visual attention to the action of significant character groupings. Less pragmatically, this device also paralleled the superficiality of the society presented, in which Sheridan’s characters are continually preoccupied with the way in which they are viewed by others.
Elsewhere, the production consciously avoided the contemporary taste for reimagining and modernising historical drama, with the retention of the original eighteenth-century setting and styles allowing for the oblique demonstration of the continuing relevance of, and entertainment offered by, the work of playwrights such as Sheridan. The costumes were especially wonderful and, though not always confined to the 1770s in style, cleverly exploited fashion trends of the long eighteenth century to enhance character development in ways that would be immediately accessible to all. For example, when Bob Acres (Lee Mengo) exchanges his long-fronted, dour-coloured waistcoat and short hair for a short waistcoat, Macaroni wig, and flowered brocade coat, it remains evident – even to those unfamiliar with the nuances of eighteenth-century fashion – that he has greatly overreached himself in his attempts to ‘cut a figure’ in society.
There were, however, occasional quirky anachronisms. The dashing Jack Absolute (Rhys Rusbatch) first appears wearing sunglasses, Bob Acres poses for a polaroid camera wielded by his servant David (Henry Everett), and it is from the stuffing of a teddy bear that Julia Melville willingly retrieves her savings when she offers to elope with Faulkland to the continent. Rather than detracting from the spirit and context of Sheridan’s work, however, these actually function as subtle chronological milestones that underscore the play’s continuing contemporary relevance. As the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre’s Artistic and Executive Directors, Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon, point out in the programme, ‘the main target of [the play’s] satire was the artifice and pointless leisure of the contemporaneous upper classes’ and ‘just as then, The Rivals is a fantastic opportunity to laugh at people with more money than sense’. For even though polaroid cameras have long since been relegated to the annals of technological history, it remains possible in Bob Acres’ posturing before its gaze to perceive the shadow of the current popularity of smart-phone selfies. Bridging the historical gap between the 1770s and the 2010s, such understated anachronistic signposting thus gently nudges the audience into appreciating the timeless quality of the humour Sheridan is offering here.
Whether it is the vicarious longing of Desmond Barrit’s Anthony Absolute as he describes the wife whom he has found for his son in somewhat less than paternal terms, or the intellectual pretensions of Julie Legrand’s incredulous Mrs. Malaprop (sorry, incredible!), every character and every line is brought to life with superb passion and panache. A refreshingly innovative way of making an eighteenth-century play relevant without detracting from its original context, this is a small but mighty production that would have greatly merited a much longer tour.
The Rivals, directed by Dominic Hill, was performed at the Old Vic, Bristol and the Everyman Playhouse, Liverpool in September and October 2016. It is now at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until 19 November 2016.