Citizens Theatre, 2nd-19th November
Chairs litter the stage. Rails of glamorously faded clothing intersperse with giant wooden structural frames. The actors loll about, daubing red spots onto their cheeks and unashamedly blackening their teeth. Extravagant wigs are adjusted; white face-paint is checked in the mirror. The actors converse amongst themselves – what are they saying, the audience wonders aloud – as tinkling piano music plays over the loudspeakers. Then, suddenly, a burst of noise, a ringing shout: the play has begun.
The Rivals was the famous 18th century dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s first play. It follows the usual sort of ridiculous 18th century narrative of silly misunderstandings, entangled love affairs and characters who pretend to be other characters; spread across differing ages and classes and levels of ludicrousness. On paper it doesn’t really sound like a winning attraction: the characters speak in long, convoluted sentences and much of the wit is derived from poking fun at contemporaneous social mores, none of which are really applicable to a 21st century audience. But what’s immediately striking about this production of The Rivals is just how well it works.
Brimming with modern appeal, the characters (despite their old-fashioned language and ways of thinking) seem relevant, understandable. Miss Lydia Languish, played to superb caricature by Lucy Briggs-Owen, is recast as an overdramatic modern personality; Nicholas Bishop’s hilarious Faulkland could be any despairing boyfriend who so completely misses the point. In fact, all the actors are supremely talented, and just so engaging to watch: Julie Legrand’s Mrs Malaprop continually grabs laughs through her absurd choice of words (fun fact: did you know that the term ‘malapropism’ was named after her?). With the exception of the myriad of characters played by Henry Everett, the only protagonist who failed to grab me was Julia Melville, performed excellently by Jessica Hardwick: was there need for such a straight-edged, sensible character in the middle of a heady farce? Didn’t she appear just a little boring when compared with the delightful silliness of the other characters?
Regardless of that, the Citizens’ Theatre’s production of The Rivals is wonderful. It is a play that, when viewed on the page, might appear static and outdated. On stage, it is engrossingly alive; hilarious and strange and endlessly absorbing. Truly eliminating, as Mrs Malaprop would say.