Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Theatre Review : The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan - Barbican Theatre (dir Deborah Warner 7/6/11)

Deborah Warner is one of my favourite directors. Her vision of Mother Courage at the National Theatre was undoubtedly one of my theatrical highlights of 2009 – musically inspired, funny, biting. She is one of the few directors consistently able to stage exciting and visionary reinterpretations of Shakespeare, such as her big-scale Julius Caesar, and an extraordinary Titus Andronicus. So it was with eager anticipation that I went to see her interpretation of Sheridan’s School for Scandal at the Barbican.

On entering the auditorium to thumping rock music, the actors are taking part in what appears to be a modern fashion shoot, gossiping and taking pictures of the audience with their mobile phones. Signs are held up, which presumably highlight some of the character traits we are about to see in the play. When the action proper begins, Lady Sneerwell (Matilda Ziegler) and Snake (Gary Sefton) are both in 20th Century underwear being dressed with 18th Century clothes. So far, so very Brechtian.

The problem, however, is that this is not a play by Brecht. Brecht’s plays are generally quite linear in exposition, their plot lines relatively simple. This is not the case with Sheridan – his plot lines are famously convoluted, and rely on some heavy exposition early on to make them work. This is where this production failed, on two levels. Firstly, there were too many distractions that diverted attention to what was being explained, and secondly the delivery by several of the cast was so flat that it was difficult to focus attention on the explication. So by the time the action picked up towards the end of the first half, I was utterly bewildered as to what was going on (I was not previously familiar with this work) and the humour was passing me by. This was a pity, as, by the third act (we have the numbers of the acts and scenes on banners on the stage, naturally) the momentum had picked up and the stage-business was becoming very amusing.

At the interval, I repaired to the bar and read the synopsis in the program which enabled me to work out who was doing what to whom and why, which meant that the second half of the performance was significantly more enjoyable than the first – but it was too late for many fellow theatregoers, judging by the empty seats after the break. One shouldn’t need to rely on a program synopsis - if Deborah Warner had focussed attention on Brechtian devices which enabled a clearer exposition of the plot, then this could have been a triumphant production.

It seemed to take the cast a while to get going as well, as if they had been put off too by the silliness at the start. The Surface brothers (Aiden McArdle as the devious Joseph and Leo Bill as the dissolute Charles) stood out. Once the momentum picked up, both extracted maximum humour from their roles, ably and effortlessly assisted by a gruff but sensitive Alan Howard as Sir Peter Teazle and John Shrapnel as Sir Oliver Surface carrying on regardless of what was going on all around him. Gary Sefton proved a visual stand-out in the unpromising role of a drunken Gentleman with elastic limbs and Katherine Parkinson was a suitably flighty Lady Teazle, although generally – and surprisingly - the female characters did not come over very strongly.

Like any good Regency comedy, this production resolves to a satisfactory conclusion, and the second half is splendid entertainment. It is such a pity that so many of the audience had been lost – physically or emotionally – by this point. Sheridan is a playwright who is still funny and relevant today, and this production represents a lost opportunity to bring home this relevance to a contemporary audience. There is nothing wrong with an adventurous modern production, but that cannot be at the expense of proper pacing and clear exposition. It’s such a shame, as this was so close to working so well.

No comments: