Love for Love
by William Congreve
Directed by Selina Cadell
Set design by Tom Piper
Costume design by Rosalind Ebbutt
The Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 7th November 2015 13.30
Daisy Ashford – Nurse
Jonathan Broadbent – Tattle, friend of Valentine
Robert Cavanah – Scandal, friend of Valentine
Jonathan Christie – Servant
Daniel Easton – Ben Legend, Valentiner’s sailor brother
Michael Fenton Stevens – Buckram , a lawyer
Hermione Gulliford – Mrs Foresight, Foresight’s wide
Nicholas Le Prevost – Sir Sampson Legend, Valentine’s father
Justine Mitchell – Angelica, Foresight’s niece
Hywel Morgan – Trapland , a bailiff
Carl Prekopp – Jeremy, servant to Valentine
Jenny Rainsford – Miss Prue, Foresight’s daughter
Elliott Ross – Servant
Michael Thomas – Old Foresight, an astrologer
Anna Tierney – Jenny
Tom Turner – Valentine Legend
Ragevan Vasan – Robin
Zoë Waites – Mrs Frail, Mrs Foresight’s sister
The consensus is that Love for Love from 1695 is a better play than the far more frequently produced The Way Of The World. It was the first play performed at the New Theatre, Lincoln’s Inn, when Congreve and the actors broke away from the Theatre Royal.
This production stresses the continuation of the Commedia dell’ Arte tradition, with an improvised pre-show where the company set up the stage, as if strolling players in a new town. They’re dressed in plain black breeches and white shirts, and set up curtains, hoist lights, chatter to the audience, get people to help with props … a man has to fold the all important “contract” down from an A3 sheet. At the back, a cloth proclaims “Hecuba by Marina Carr” (the last play on at The Swan) and this has to be removed and replaced by Love for Love by William Congreve. All the scene markers (“Valentine’s lodgings” “Foresight’s house”) are on cloths which will be dropped into place as needed. All are visible.
The curtains are thin white muslin. The stage is unvarnished, unpainted wood … you can smell the wood. We know it’s artifice, we know the actors are not yet in roles. When they start with the breathless prologue, there’s some debate about who’s going to do it. As they adopt costumes, they’re 1695 in cut, but in brighter, harder colours. Turquoises, pinks, purples. Everyone has socks or stockings in hard colours reflecting their costumes … all the men have plain black breeches under their coats. The women’s skirts are above the ankle, not swishing the floor … which must have been true for working women and actresses on stage and all but the idle rich. The costumes stand out powerfully against the colourless pale set. It deserves an award for costume design. Make up is obvious. Tattle (the beau) has painted rosy cheeks. When Valentine goes mad in Act 4, the foolish lips are painted on, and wiped off with his arm at will. The Acts (all five as in the original) are announced, and the cloth sheet is dropped into place. The important names are stressed and repeated before new characters appear … “Ben” the absent sailor brother, is announced to hilarious effect many times long before we see him swashbuckle on in Act 3. You are not going to wonder who he is.
The aim is reproducing the style and theatre space of 1695. Restoration theatres, though indoors and elaborately galleried, still had a thrust stage and a pit. They would have had to react with the audience. Director Selina Cadell in the programme says It was not until 1912 with the arrival of Ibsen on the London stage that the fourth wall began to emerge. I wouldn’t accept that. The fourth wall would exist surely from the introduction of proscenium stages with a full length opening and closing curtain. Diderot used the term in 1758. Moliere uses the term, wondering whether this invisible fourth wall does not conceal a crowd observing us, and certainly mid-19th century elaborate sets created a “picture” framed by the proscenium arch, which was not broken. Anyway, we would agree that 1695 would have had a noisy and interactive pit audience surrounding a thrust stage. Throughout the audience is involved … often being asked to hold props or costume. We never forget it’s a construct … the entrance door is isolated mid stage so you can see around it on both sides. Characters forget and bypass it and get told off. Props are thrown into the wings and elicit howls of pain. I had a real sense of the style of the era, even though what we saw here was strolling players, not the fixed company of the New Theatre,
What fascinated me is that they removed all the sheen, silks, satins, and mannered polish often applied to late 17th century plays. The immediate contrast for me was The Way Of The World a Chichester in 2012, all mirrors, chandeliers and elaborate costumes. That wonderful production also featured Hermione Gulliford (Mrs Foresight here) as Mrs Marwood. This equally wonderful production was stylistic chalk and cheese. The playing style is big. It’s lewd, pointed, extremely funny, extremely clear.
It’s a triumph for the casting director too. One of the continuing joys of the RSC is the assembly of new companies in The Swan Theatre. Many of the cast are on RSC Debut Season intermingled with experienced RSC regulars. They are playing in repertory with Queen Anne, appropriately as this is set close to Queen Anne’s reign, and part of the interactive business at the start involved appointing an audience member as Queen, presenting her with a crown and bowing to her. Is the sense of ensemble just acting? They give the air of being a “company” so strongly in the opening improvised section. In 1695, we were actually in the reign of William & Mary, but Anne became queen in 1702 and the play had remained popular.
Tom Turner plays Valentine, the central character. He’s £4000 in debt, and his father, Sir Sampson Legend, makes him sign over his inheritance to his absent sailor brother Ben to repay it. Valentine’s in love with Angelica (Justine Mitchell), an heiress who is playing hard to get, wisely suspicious of Valentine’s profligate nature. Tom Turner is tall, lean and has the perfect face for the character. It’s all in the mouth. He manages to look sardonic, world-weary and then clownish at the drop of a hat. He’s accompanied by his constant scheming servant, Jeremy (Carl Prekopp). The pals are Scandal (Robert Cavanah) who is pursuing Mrs Foresight) and Tattle, the foppish beau. Jonathan Broadbent is Tattle, the broadest comedy character. We first saw him with Filter in A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is ideal training for the style of comedy and use of interaction. His entrance leaping across a sofa is marvellous to behold. He has a rare gift, ideally suited to the style and role.
Tattle (Jonathan Broadbent) in foreground, Scandal and Valentine in background
Then we have the two lusty sisters, Mrs Foresight and Mrs Frail. Mrs Frail (Zoe Waites) is a merry widow, we must assume. Mrs Foresight is married to the ageing hypochondriac astrologer, Mr Foresight (Michael Thomas). Congreve obviously knew quite a bit about astrology, though it’s mocked here. Angelica, the heiress, is Foresight’s niece. This is a lovely part, constantly checking and keeping her distance from Valentine. She is also pursued by his old goat of a dad, Sir Sampson Legend (Nicholas le Prevost). Sir Sampson tries to woo her, going painfully onto hs knees (I know the feeling) to woo her.
Angelica and Sir Sampson Legend
Foresight’s daughter, Miss Prue, fancies Tattle but is betrothed to sailor Ben. Jenny Rainsford as Miss Prue, with rural accent and pink streaked hair is a major discovery. She transfixed us both with the vigour and humour of her interpretation. While she fancies Tattle, he’s grown bored with her after a day.
Sisters: Mrs Frail and Mrs Foresight with that door in mid stage
Ben (Daniel Easton), the leering lusty sailor bursts into Act 3 in a shower of fish, and tries to snog every female on stage, and adds a shocked Tattle too (who looks strangely moved).
L to R: Mrs Frail, Ben snogging Tattle, Angelica, Sir Sampson
Miss Prue and the sailor, Ben
I won’t go through the plot … if you go, you’ll follow it with ease. I will add that Act 3 takes us up to the interval with a song from Ben, followed by a sailor’s hornpipe dance (with sailors struggling to don costume in time). Ragevan Vasan, as Robin, sets up Act 4 (by moving a chair) then does a frantic hornpipe merging into modern dance, before being beckoned off. The musicians are just off stage, on our level, and in costume. The music is by Eliza Thompson, and we have flute, bassoon, violin, piano and percussion … at one point spoons. In the second part the women get a six piece dance. Music and dance are strong throughout.
Act 4: Valentine (centre) is feigning madness, flanked by Jeremy his servant, and Mrs Frail
A couple of reviews called it a farce, which it is not. The comedy has no tricks, only one mistaken identity (when Tattle marries Mrs Frail) and that takes place off stage. There’s no hiding in cupboards, no leaving through doors in the nick of time. It’s fabulous restoration comedy. Michael Billington, ever the most reliable critic (his 101 Greatest Plays is my bedside reading at one or two plays a night) gave it four stars in The Guardian. Love for Love is one of his chosen 101 Greatest Plays too, and he mentions that Tattle was the role chosen by both Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier. He describes a particular Olivier performance, and it sounds as if ANYTHING would have to be one star less!
The Sunday Times gave four stars also. The Telegraph and Times gave it three. We walked out at the end, still laughing, looked at each other, and both said ‘five stars’ simultaneously. I don’t know whether reviewers realise the enormous skill required to perform a play flat out, while keeping a toe outside the play at the same time.
I will note that one review said it was long at 3 hours 5 minutes (including a 20 minute interval). We found it flew by, never bored or lost attention for a second. However, I made it exactly three hours with a 25 minute interval, so possibly there has been some judicious shaving since press night. Maybe they’ve just tightened entrances and exits (there are a lot) and speeded up business.
First-rate essays. The synopsis is in five acts, in 17th century style. Actually, we both found it unintelligible. The sentences were either too short or too convoluted, and the proper nouns for names run so close together accentuated by elaborate initial capital letters. I read it three times and it wouldn’t go in. No matter, it worked as a summary afterwards, and the story is crystal clear without any prior synopsis.
The other point is the flier and programme cover design. It continues the theme of an actor in the wrong costume, photographed many months before the production. It’s Nicholas le Prevost, or Sir Sampson Legend. They even sell posters of it in the gift shop. First, I’d definitely have featured Valentine as the lead character, but second, what does it evoke? Let’s home for a new cover theme for 2016.
Queen Anne by Helen Edmundson, with most of this cast, RSC 2015
CONGREVE ON THIS BLOG:
The Way of The World by William Congreve, Chichester Festival Theatre 2012
LINKS TO CAST MEMBERS ON THIS BLOG
The Way Of The World (as Mrs Marwood)
For Services Rendered (as Eva)
Nicholas le Prevost
Man and Superman (as Roebuck Ramsden)
Arcadia (as Bernard Nightingale)
The Crucible (Reverend Parrish)