If you’re looking for a traditional performance of this mannered Restoration classic, with wigs and sedan chairs, men in breeches, ladies with bouffant wigs hiding behind their fans, then best to head up to London to see Peter Hall’s production with Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles. What you get with the Mercury Theatre Company’s version directed by Gari Jones is an altogether livelier and exhilirating experience.
Truth be told, having hugely enjoyed their ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Depot’ in recent years, I wasn’t grabbed by the choice of The Rivals in this new season for the Mercury Theatre. I’d seen it a long time ago, and recall it being fairly heaving going. What I didn’t appreciate is just how innovative this production is. It was through following an @MercuryTheatre tweet to a YouTube video, that I saw (and heard) what was afoot, and that decided me on wanting to see this version.
The production is true to the original script, and, indeed runs to 3:10 from opening curtain to closing curtain. But from the opening setting the clever direction, stage design, costumes, lighting and music come to the fore. Clearly, if you sit down anticipating a traditional approach to the play, you are potentially going to be extremely put out!
The stage is dark and plain, with four slightly raised platforms, each holding a chair, and a number of doorways at the back of the stage, but that’s it in terms of stage furniture and design.
These doorways are used to great effect in the opening. It’s a complex play to get to grips with initially, with a number of characters, and complex relationships with them. With the doorways surrounded by lightbulbs, they take the role of picture frames, with characters appearing in them as they are mentioned in the dialogue stage.
The costumes immediately set the production apart. A couple of the characters are traditionally dressed – Mrs. Malaprop, voluminous bustled dress and bouffant hair, and Sir Anthony Absolute in his red army uniform and white wig. Mrs. Malaprop is played by Christine Absalom, who creates an endearing character for the woman with lots of words at her disposal, but not necessarily the right ones.
As for Sir Anthony, Ignatius Anthony gives full comic reign to the red-nosed, gout ridden old soldier – more pantomime than Restoration, but the audience loved him.
The rest of the cast are clad in a sort of Restorationpunk. Young Captain Jack Absolute (Will Norris) has a touch of the Adam and the Ants dandy highwayman about him, including knee-length converse trainers.
Clare Humphrey as Lucy, the scheming female servant, looks like she’s been pulled through Helena Bonham-Carter’s wardrobe.
Outfit-wise, Sir Lucius O’Trigger, an Irish baronet, had my favourite outfit, a top-hatted steampunky affair. This Irish character evidently got a fair bit of criticism in the opening run of the play the best part of 250 years ago, and it remains a broad and bold character, with Marshall Griffin playing it very Irish and well-hard.
The main female love interest, Lydia Languish, very much languishes herself across one of the chairs for most of the performance, in a white dress more ballerina than shy debutante. Katherine Manners plays her as a gawky teenager, head full of romantic love rather than family devotion, all legs and elbows as she sprawls around the chair. Give her her due, there’s no concern at her whispering behind her fan and not being heard at the back of the auditorium, she makes certain that her point of view is heard!
Julia Melville and her lover Faulkland are less burlesque than others in the play. Faulkland is soberly dressed, and David Tarkenter gives the show a greater degree of emotional depth, as he plays his part, not as a light, louche dilettante with doubts, but as a very tortured, self-doubting, tortured soul – quite memorably in his main solo scene when he plumbs the depth of dark despair. However, he also shows a deftness of touch when waiting by a doorway for the return, or not, of his love.
Country bumpkin Bob Acres, is played larger than life (and hailing from Dudley) by Graeme Brookes, spends the first half of the show in drab country squire outfit. The second half of the show opens with him in a siamese-twin, Jake the Peg (five leggeed) glittery blue frock that had touches of Cabaret about it, before revealing his leather-clad new style, which he aims to woo the ladies with. His performance is by and large. Sorry, bi and large.
There was a lot of movement about the stage – no chance of nodding off through the lengthy dialogue! What elevated the performance for me, though, was the sound. Throughout the show there were interspersed nouvelle vague style versions of modern songs – notably the end of the first half, that saw the star-crossed lovers miming to a version of a punk/new wave classic. I won’t give the game away by telling you what it was, but it is one of my all time favourites. I’m not sure how many of the audience would have recognised the songs (there were a couple I couldn’t work out), and I’m fairly certain the visual reference to The Matrix was only picked up by a couple of people (I was the only one who laughed at that point).
In addition to Director Gari Jones, big praise to Designer Amy Yardley, Lighting Designer Ben Payne, Sound Designer Marcus Christensen, and Movement Director Charlie Morgan.
There’s a lot to admire about the performance, a lot to be watching, and a lot to listen to – both the dialogue and musically. It’s a play that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
The clip on YouTube gives a good feel for the production – so watch it and book your tickets!: