When you enter the Swan Theatre you feel you have arrived too early. Various lamps, astrolabes, and a stuffed crocodile are being hoisted into suspension over the thrust stage; banners are unfurled across a temporary proscenium arch, and actors scurry around unwrapping props and hurriedly donning parts of costumes as they go. This is a travelling troupe of players putting on Congreve’s Love for Love, not a static conventional production. We have here a kind of immersive pragmatism that in the wrong hands can evince a lack of confidence in the conventions and style of the original, but which in the right hands, as here, strips away layers of old varnish to reveal a funnier and yet more discomfiting classic comedy underneath than any of us could have expected.
Many of the actors and creative team involved in this production, including director Selina Cadell, were also at the centre of an excellent production of The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre which I reviewed a year ago. Now Sheridan is a very different kind of writer from Congreve, but many of the virtues of that production still transfer admirably to the earlier play. As the programme correctly notes, there are several distinct and different phases to the era we blandly designate ‘Restoration Comedy’, and a too literal faithfulness to periwigs, breeches and acting based on fey ‘Pish and Tush’ mannerism risks being both historically wrong as well as dramatically hampered.
Much better to aim for an approach that captures the spirit of authenticity and period, while freeing the actors physically and stylistically to develop the full subversive and ironic potential of the text. So while the setting and costumes are certainly reminiscent of the era of Restoration Comedy, they are streamlined variations on it and not exact facsimiles. And the playing style is much more in keeping with the notion that the more a comedy is played in deadly earnest the funnier it will be in delivery and impact.
There is historical pedigree for this step, for as Jessica Swale’s recent Nell Gwynn has reminded us, the conventions of theatre and the relationship between players and audience had to be rebuilt after the closure of the playhouses in the mid-seventeenth century. This was done above all through a refocusing on hearing the dexterous word play of the theatre once more in sustained jousting through which the broader issues of gender, class, and inter-generational conflict are then exuberantly played out. While costume, sets and lighting and music still matter, as they did then, it is crucial that the actors define themselves through their handling of the beautifully crafted rhetoric of this play. That they do so here is at the core of the particular bravura this cast displays in what is a highly enjoyable production.
Anyone coming across a plot summary of this play might be forgiven for thinking that things have moved on little from the world of Plautus and Terence as filtered through Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Old men with money lust after young dependent women; matrons also seek to rediscover their lost youth, and scapegrace young bloods are assisted by wily servants in achieving both brides and fortunes and defeating the older generation along the way. Is Love for Love no more than A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Vauxhall Gardens?
But they would be wrong. What Congreve offers here is a carefully calculated reworking of old archetypes that is both in line with the contemporary theoretical writings he published and also a mordant cross-section through the society of his own age. Each of the lead characters represents a ‘humour’ who follows a characteristic course through the play, and alongside them are personified embodiments of Scandal (Robert Cavanah) and Tattle (Jonathan Broadbent) who cleverly explore the full gamut of overt gossip and covert social deceit upon which contemporary layered London society both depended and festered.
In every case the characters use bluffs and stratagems to conceal and try to reverse positions that are essentially weak. Sir Sampson Legend (Nicholas Le Prevost), father to Valentine and Ben, kids himself he can recover the sexual vigour of his youth by dispossessing his elder son and marrying Angelica, (Justine Mitchell) the rich ward of an empty-headed and credulous gentleman, Foresight (Michael Thomas), who in turn wishes to marry his daughter Miss Prue (Jenny Rainsford) to Sir Sampson’s second son Ben (Daniel Easton), recently returned from a rough-and-ready life at sea. Valentine (Tom Turner) has to find a way of paying off his debts, outwitting his father and persuading Angelica that his love for her is not motivated by pursuit of her fortune. Matters are complicated further by the machinations of Mrs Foresight (Hermione Gulliford) and her sister Mrs Frail (Zoe Waites), seeking to promote their own marital adventures, and the interventions of Scandal and Tattle and a host of lawyers, servants and hangers-on all exploring acute angles of self-advancement.
There is an intriguing political aspect to all of this stage business, with Congreve very much lining up in support of those characters that choose the free expression of liberty over tyranny and absolutism; but, as in the best of satires, you do not need to engage with this level unless you wish to do so. The action bowls breezily along through many reversals of fortune and cadenzas of verbal escapism and visual sleight of hand that the actors embrace with precision and panache. There are no conventionally ‘good’ characters in the play, and just as in the operas of the day, everyone gets a memorable solo spot with variety provided by many different combinations of voices. There is a great deal of local paradox, both in the language, and in the ironic juxtaposition of characters and moral notions in succeeding scenes. However, this again is part of the pattern that you can register or simply come back to another time.
You need a cracking pace if this kind of comedy is to succeed, but that does mean the lines have to be rushed. Cadell and designer Tom Piper keep the stage of the Swan sparsely furnished, at least at ground level, and that allows great scope for rapid-fire movement onstage and clever coordination from the wings. This sets up a fine flow which gives an impression of high speed even when the lines are being delivered with due deliberation. Here the stripped-down costumes by Rosalind Ebbutt help to free-up the cast too, though the carefully coordinated colour palette gives the feel of luxury even when the petticoats and wigs and mantuas are largely absent from view. The band of musicians offstage provides characterful support when needed, and Eliza Thompson’s settings of the songs serve to reinforce the moral matrix of the action while never overstaying their welcome.
Le Prevost is rightly on the cover of the programme for it is his character, Sir Sampson, that – unusually perhaps – provides much of the impetus for the action. He has an extraordinarily expressive voice, as those lucky enough to hear him in the recent Howard Barker revival at the Arcola, will know; and those resources are used to register anger, resentment, coiled-up frustrated sexual energy, and a faded raffish charm to marvellous comic effect. Turner and Mitchell, in particular, have his measure though, and the contest scenes between them are a delight to witness. There is a fine rivalrous chemistry between the two lovers as well, that almost seems to anticipate Valmont and Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
It would be fair to say that there are no obvious weak links elsewhere in the cast, and rather than highlight everyone I would draw attention instead to those actors who go beyond finding the right demands of style to add in something that is truly quirky or distinctive. As Foresight, Thomas offers a delightful study in cumulative superstitious fussiness that becomes funnier as the evening progresses as the delightful details accumulate. As his daughter, Rainsford demonstrates an oddball punk quality that makes her much more memorable than the standard country bumpkin. Daniel Easton takes the ostensibly unrewarding part of the oafish younger brother, Ben, and gives him real vivacity – his scenes with the ever-pliant Mrs Frail are a total delight. Among the smaller roles, Broadbent is very visually inventive as Tattle, and all the more funny by trying not to be; and Carl Prekopp is the pick of the sly servants, carrying on where he left off as Fag at the Arcola.
The success of this production is an object lesson in trusting to the quality of the original and giving the actors freedom to develop their characters unfussily through the flairful language of the original. Congreve was master of his art by the time this play was first performed (in an adapted tennis court that once stood near Lincoln’s Inn Fields pretty much on the site of the building where I am writing this review!). There are many layers of meaning to be found in this play if you want to seek them, and the production allows you to do so.
Selina Cadell and her team deserve great credit for opening up the music box, letting it revolve, and allowing us to look inside…..