The Country Wife – July 2018

Experience: 7/10

By William Wycherley

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2018

As expected, this had improved with time. The cast were smoother in all aspects of the performance, the dialogue was clearer (or seemed so to us second time around) and one or two of the earlier difficulties had been resolved, at least in part. There was no change to the staging as far as I could see, though of course we spotted more details this time, especially sitting left of centre instead of on the right, as last time. It still didn’t sparkle, and we both felt that the design had to take a lot of the blame for that – the dark, black and white colour scheme simply brought the whole play down.

This time, I reckoned Horner’s third groan, as he looked at the nearly empty bottle, was in recognition of why he felt so bad: it certainly got a good early laugh. I noticed that the doctor had flip-up sunshades on his glasses, and Horner handed him a wodge of money for his services before getting a couple of beers from the fridge. The doctor got out his stethoscope when Sir Jasper arrived – camouflage – and I was more aware that Horner’s friends weren’t in the know about his little scam.

Sparkish was still one of the best parts in this production, and Scott Karim had developed the character nicely. His silly laugh, his masterful use of “pshaw” at every opportunity and his over-expressive movements all worked well together to show us he was the fop of the piece. (And a good job too, since the costume was determined not to give anything away.) Horner and his mates were doing their best to ignore Sparkish: he tried to intrigue them with “I’ll go fetch my mistress…” but they wouldn’t bite, so he simply had to leave.

I spotted a sound along with the change of lighting when Harcourt and Alithea first saw each other, and although it was very clear that first Pinchwife and then Sparkish were saying all the wrong things to their wife and fiancée respectively in that scene, they simply weren’t getting any laughs. The hand mixer as a weapon did, though, which was one of the reasons why Steve’s idea, which he mentioned in the interval, might have worked (more on that story later). Actually, it was Alithea removing the plug which got the laugh, but the choice of a hand mixer was crucial to that joke.

This time I could see Lady Fidget’s reactions as Horner whispered his secret into her ear. At first she looked interested, then a smile of pleasure crept over her face, explaining her complete change of heart about allowing Horner to stay in her company.

The rest of the first half was as before with nothing extra to report. Come the interval, Steve reckoned that if the directors of Present Laughter and this play had been swapped over, both productions would have been improved: Sean Foley would have ensured that The Country Wife was full of laughs, while Jonathan Munby would have at least treated Coward’s play with the respect it deserves. I agree. He also mentioned that Dainty Fidget picked up a used condom from beside the record player and took it off when the cast were clearing up after the opening scene, holding it well away from her.

For the second half, there were a few gaps again, but most of the audience were still in their seats. Horner’s servant and Lucy were seriously occupied with each other in one of the doorways at the restart, but soon broke off, and again they went into the song and dance bit. I didn’t care for it so much this time, and Steve still wasn’t impressed, but in all the activity I did spot Margery at an upper window back left. Horner came through and looked up at her, and then Pinchwife dragged her away and closed the window. I assume that happened first time around, but I simply didn’t spot it.

I still found Alithea’s wedding dress a bit bizarre. The lacy black overdress made it look funereal, and was another example of the design’s effect on the play. In the bedroom scene, when Pinchwife was forcing his wife to write the letter to Horner, they’d eased off on the nastiness a bit, allowing the threats of violence to seem more cartoonish, with Margery not being particularly upset about them. This worked much better than before, although they could have gone further in that direction as far as we were concerned.

The rushing about in Horner’s rooms got some better laughs tonight, and I found the dialogue easier to understand – it helps to know who the various characters are beforehand. The scenes went through very nicely, and when Sparkish encountered Alithea outside Horner’s place, when she was supposed to be in Horner’s bedroom, he tore up her letter and threw it on the ground. But after that he picked up most of the pieces – she picked up one of them and handed it to him, and he thanked her.

The arguing among the three women over Horner was clearer this time: although they weren’t happy they agreed to share him. Then all was as before to the end. There were some brighter smiles on faces for their bows, but again we felt this wasn’t the happiest production for the cast, although we may never know the truth of it. We also felt that the audience weren’t giving as much as they could have, which didn’t help.

Apart from the sombre design, we thought that the director had placed too much emphasis on the ’darker’ aspects of the play, including the threats of violence towards the women. On this second viewing, and having read the text myself for the first set of notes, we both felt that this is cartoon violence – Tom and Jerry rather than Reservoir Dogs – and should be handled as such. Not to condone it, but to recognise that men also make silly threats which don’t always have to be taken so seriously. Perhaps we’re not in a place where that can be done at the moment, but it will be a shame if so much historical work is to be filtered through a modern consciousness which takes away the humour and leaves us with such relatively drab productions.

© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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