Wednesday, 2 May 2018
The Way of the World at The Donmar
As with all Restoration Comedies, Congreve’s The Way of the World isn’t a quick fix, running as it does for over 3 hours. During the first half, we’re mainly acquainting ourselves with the many and varied characters and trying to understand the convoluted plotlines. So, from that point of view, the running time is necessary. What would help is if the whole production was, how can I put it, a little funnier. Everything eventually becomes clear, but at times the getting there is slightly ponderous and not as amusing as it could be.
Various plots and sub-plots abound in the play and I will try and condense the main plot thus. Mirabell and Millament are two lovers. In order for them to marry and receive Millamant's full dowry, Mirabell must receive the blessing of Millamant's aunt, Lady Wishfort. Unfortunately, Lady Wishfort is very bitter, despises Mirabell and wants her own nephew, Sir Wilfull, to wed Millamant. Meanwhile Fainall is having a secret affair with Mrs. Marwood, a friend of Mrs. Fainall's, who in turn once had an affair with Mirabell ….. phew!
James Macdonald’s production of Congreve’s final play written in 1700 is less foppish and frilly than many. Instead he allows the playwright’s characterisations to carry the play forward. As a consequence, we the audience have to work hard to fathom the hidden agendas and wheeler dealings of each character. Luckily the cast are expert in throwing out clues. With his narrowed eyes scrutinising his opponent, Mirabell, the vulpine Tom Mison, reveals Fainall’s ruthlessness from the start. While, in complete contrast, Geoffrey Streatfield illuminates Mirabell’s generosity with a very restrained performance. Actually it’s a little too restrained and, as a result, tends to lack spontaneity.
It takes the unguarded appearances of Witwoud, Mirabell and Lady Wishfort to inject some much-needed verve. Fisayo Akinade has the foppishness of the superficial Witwoud down to a fine art and he and his side-kick Petulant (Simon Manyonda) bicker and spar with great aplomb. Justine Mitchell, so brilliant in the recent National Theatre production of Beginning, is equally good here playing the irreverent Millament, although the slight criticism is that her interpretation is rather too modern. But the fact that she brings great humour to the part is in no doubt.
The peach of a part in this comedy that pokes fun at a society where relationships are determined by monetary gain rather than romantic love, is that of Lady Wishfort, played here by Haydn Gwynne. Dressed like an entire rose garden, Gwynne treats us to physical humour par excellence when she tries out various postures on and ultimately “off” her chaise longue. Despite examining her face in the mirror and exclaiming that “I look like an old peeled wall”, she feels the need to select the correct position in which to greet a (phoney) admirer. If only she were a little less screechy.
There is a stylish design by Anna Fleischle who uses simple gauzes to transfer the tiny Donmar stage into by turns a chocolate house, London park and Lady Wishfort’s home. In fact the whole production is stylish and amusing, with good performances all round. It just lacks a little “joie de vivre”.