Paul T Davies reviews restoration comedy The Way Of The World now playing at the Donmar Warehouse.
The Way of the World.
The Donmar Warehouse.
6 April 2018
‘Tis the fashion these days to modernise classic texts, to underline contemporary relevance and to find new aspects of the work. Sometimes this works brilliantly, (Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre), occasionally the interpretation smothers the text a little, (The Plough and the Stars at the Lyric Hammersmith). What a pleasure then to see a Restoration Comedy wigged, set and beautifully costumed in its period, and played in a style that doesn’t need to shout about its relevance. William Congreve’s comedy, with its over-complicated plot, is basically about the abuse and manipulation of Lady Wishfort and her emotions, basically for men to get their hands on her money. In this world love is capital and money is property, and the gender divide is clear for all to see.
The Donmar Warehouse production looks fabulous, with Anna Fleishle’s design and Ilona Karas and her costume team being the stars of the show. The acting is as sumptuous as the costumes, with some perfectly pitched comedy performances. Geoffrey Streatfeild as Mirabell, conniving for love, and his opposite number, Tom Mison as Fainall, conniving for money, are both excellent, although in the first half, carrying a lot of exposition, their approach is a little too mannered and formal, holding the pace up. Fisayo Akinade brings fizzing energy to Witwould, Justine Mitchell excellent as cynical- about- love- yet- in- love Millamant, and Sarah Hadland bringing all of her comedic skills to saucy and conniving maid Foible. Caroline Martin is highly impressive as Mrs. Fainall, the most truthful character, a weary and cynical commentator of her times.
But the evening belongs to the tremendous Haydn Gwynne as Lady Wishfort, a woman of “superannuated frippery”, desperate to marry again, and innocent of the price her fortune has put on her wig. Hilarious in her self -delusion of her beauty and status, it is also heart breaking to see her so cruelly manipulated by the men, and her supposedly best friend. In the second half, Goldsmith delivers a series of duologues that feel like round after round of excellent singles matches at Wimbledon, the wit and comedy is lobbed superbly between partners. This includes Christian Patterson almost stealing the show as country man Sir Wilful Witwould, and a superb scene with Alex Beckett posing as Waitwell to secure Lady Wishfort’s money- it is a masterclass in comic timing.
And yet over three hours is a long time to watch the idle rich gossip, plot and manipulate, and James MacDonald’s production comes to life in fits and starts, for me it only really get going when Ms. Gwynne appears in Act Three. The overlong first half could do with some judicious cutting to take us quicker to the comedy gold, and I was surprised that the Donmar space wasn’t utilized even more for audience interaction. That said, this is a fine company and the production will run in, and it offers up many satisfying scenes, even if the majority are in the second half.