The news was dominated yesterday by the ongoing furore over exam grades which is set to build into a scandal of the greatest proportions. Meanwhile back in the 18th century, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was aiming at rather different targets. His greatest success was first performed in 1777 but this particular production of The School For Scandal was seen at the Greenwich Theatre ten years ago. It is a play that deals with and is steeped in artifice (three of the characters are significantly called Surface) involving copious use of theatrical asides and plenty of what would have been called “wit”. Indeed, there is so much wit in this play that it is difficult to move for it. As far loftier commentators than I have observed, all the characters speak in such a high-flown style that it is difficult to get any psychological realism into the piece – this production does not even try.
The most striking aspect is probably the costume design (Neil Irish) which nods at the conventions of the nominal period and then eschews them almost entirely. I’m hazarding a guess that a main source for clothing was Camden Market. There’s an overuse of purple for the ladies but they have some dinky little hats; backcombed hair is prevalent for both genders. The young men, in particular, look like refugees from an Adam Ant video. The effect is of a pantomime on steroids and this is bolstered by everyone adopting strange stances whenever they meet – what Lewis Carroll would have referred to as “attitudes” – but at least that curtails the otherwise endlessly tedious bowing and curtseying which would normally be going on. Sheridan’s script calls for various locations but no attempt is made to replicate these – instead, judicious use is made of curtains but these give us too many front of cloth scenes (pantomime again). The main library set is used for the more important moments which would not be a problem if it was less “busy” thus drawing attention to the fact that it is the same set; less would have been more here in terms of convincing us that we were in different locations. The wooden flooring did the video sound no favours.
The majority of the actors deliver most of the lines at maximum volume (perhaps Greenwich has acoustic problems) and there is little subtlety to be had from what are, after all, singularly one-dimensional characters to start with. Bucking the trend somewhat are Harvey Virdi as Mrs Candour and Tim Treloar as Crabtree and it was a shame when these characters disappeared from the action for a long while. Similarly, Guy Burgess’s very Brummy Snake who unfortunately appears only at the start and end of the play. Samuel Collings as chief hypocrite/villain Joseph Surface is wildly overdone and the director needed to tell Adam Redmore (as good brother Charles) that it is unnecessary for a drunken character to make this clear to the audience by swigging from a bottle just about every time he delivers a line – the point was made well and truly after the first half dozen or so chugs. Unfortunately, I did not care for the portrayal of the Teazles at all. Jonathan Battersby sometimes fluffed lines and was too reliant on stock faces (outrage in particular) to get the message across. Beatrice Curnew as Lady Teazle was better but there needed to be more of a sense of the countryside innocent who had become corrupted by the scandalmongers of the town.
I was thankful for the brisk pace set by the direction of Elizabeth Freestone but at 2.5 hours the show was far too long. Some (or at least some more) judicious pruning would have been welcome. In particular, a tavern scene, complete with song, dragged on interminably and looked more like a penance than good fun. I was also surprised that, even though it was ten years ago, the production could have been quite so blind to Sheridan’s unfortunate and somewhat anti-Semitic remarks about the character of Moses the money lender; the relevant few minutes are quite an uncomfortable watch.
Sheridan, rather like some of the Restoration playwrights before him and certainly like Wilde after him and even Coward, is difficult to get right in terms of balance if it all isn’t going to become just frivolous nonsense. Although there were aspects of this production to admire it didn’t seem to me to achieve an equilibrium and that a firmer hand was needed on the tiller. The time is really ripe for a production which emphasises the celebrity tittle tattle and gossip elements of the play – after all, isn’t that what we’re all obsessed with nowadays? Unfortunately watching this in the middle of the examination grading fiasco gives the title a whole new level of unintended meaning.
The School For Scandal can be accessed via You Tube. Click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)