The School For Scandal
Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Theatre Royal, Bath
14 July 2012 matinee
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Lady Teazel, centre
The School for Scandal was first performed in 1777, and was the most popular play of its era. From the same decade, given two performances on one night and a choice, I’d always choose She Stoops to Conquer by Goldsmith, but it’s a close contest. Director Jamie Lloyd did She She Stoops to Conquer last year, School for Scandal this.
There’s something appropriate about seeing The School for Scandal in Bath, and in late 18th century costume, or an amusingly exagerrated idea of late 18th century costume. Most were accurate, but Crabtree (in glowing pink) and Sir Benjamin Backbite (in mauve) were deliberately OTT. Lady Teazles shorter skirt (by an inch or two to reveal her pretty pink shoes) and generally lighter dress compared to Lady Sneerwell and Mrs Candour was right for the period and showed her age difference.
The Theatre Royal (or “New Theatre Royal”) replaced the original where it would first have been staged, but you know it’s been on that stage many times, and the drawing rooms and Georgian windows of the set are reflected in the buildings surrounding the theatre. Sheridan eloped from Bath to embark on a secret marriage, was caught and escorted back there. He knew about tongues wagging and local gossip. Beau Nash’s house is right next door to the theatre.
It’s especially hard writing reviews when there’s absolutely nothing in the production to be negative about. The direction by Jamie Lloyd is seamless, moving the action from salon to salon with speed, and the set accommodates three houses without having to have much done to it … mirrors revolve to become bookshelves, folding doors are opened to reveal windows, furniture has four costumed servants to move it. Elaborate 18th century bowing and scraping by departing characters cover each scene change. The cream coloured set shows off the costumes and wigs of the characters.
Joseph Surface & servant
The direction milks every nuance of comedy out of the text, and the physical reactions are 2012. Lady Teazle (Susannah Fielding) not only looks petite, pretty and perfect for the part of the young wife of an older man, she also has quizotic energy, and some very 21st century girlie facial reactions which add to the hilarity.
Joseph Surface as the conniving hypocrite is the best part in the original play, and Edward Bennett is perfect. He plays the farce beautifully in the big scene in the second half, where Lady Teazle is hidden behind the screen, and Sir Peter Teazle (James Laurenson) comes into the room. Then when Joseph has to hide Sir Peter Teazle in a closet on the opposite side, his gangling leaps across the stage, back and forth, had tears of laughter running down my face … and I’m not an expressive audience member. Lady Teazle’s face peeping over the top of the screen during all this had me roaring with laughter too.
Maria looks disapprovingly at Backbite and Mrs Candour.
The gossips … Lady Sneerwell (Serena Evans), Mrs Candour (Maggie Steed), Crabtree (David Killick) and Sir Benjamin Backbite (Grant Gillespie) are magnificent. Maggie Sneed brings malicious power to the comedy.
Charles Surface (Nigel Harman) is the good brother who has been painted as a dissolute n’er do-well. Sheridan holds his appearance back late in the play. It’s an interesting device for the most-talked about and maligned character to be first seen such a long way into the plot.
It’s all played “big.” It should be. There’s no point in relying on the intrinsic wit of the script alone when you have allegorical character names like Snake, Backbite, Candour and Surface. The cast are having fun, and they go for it. Sir Peter Teazle is the hardest role: among so many big, hilarious parts, he’s the honest straight guy. Sir Peter is an old man who married a young innocent country girl, made her Lady Teazle, brought her to the city, and found her lured into the world of fashion, gossip, backbiting and flirtation. James Laurenson did Sir Peter so well that he even managed to elicit “Ahhhs!” from a Bath matinee audience when he stepped out of the play and addressed us directly. The bickering scenes between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle still resonate on marriage today and combine comedy and pathos. Sir Peter drips sincerity. His flippertygibbit wife never seems far from fingering a colour-co-ordinated (to her dress) sticky confection, an action which manages to show her youth, her greed and frustrated sensuality all together.
There was good applause at the end, but any West End audience would have given a deserved standing ovation. Bath matinee audiences are reserved, though livelier on Saturdays than Wednesdays. Bath on a summer Saturday is too crowded for the oldest regulars.
Sir Peter Teazel, Rowley and Sir Oliver Surface (the rich uncle)
I will struggle hard and find a couple of points to mention. Serena Evans is a wonderful very funny Lady Sneerwell, but I’d be almost inclined to cast younger and … wait for it … along Katie Price (aka Jordan) lines. Big breasts, falling out of her costume. Obvious. She’s a widow, but a young widow. BUT I’m sure in the end they’re right in that Lady Sneerwell lusting after Charles, a younger man, mirrors Sir Peter’s interest in a younger woman. Her unrequited interest in Charles is her motivation in scandalmongering and deception. Not that we ever see Lady Sneerwell and Charles on stage together until the end. Maria is Sir Peter’s ward who is being courted by both brothers, Joseph and Charles. Joseph’s after her money. Charles loves her. Maria is the one who stands apart and refuses to participate in the gossip. We never see her and Charles together either, until the end.
American productions have changed “Jews” to “Moneylenders” and been criticized for lack of fidelity to a classic. Outside of The Merchant of Venice, I would prefer to PC any anti-Semitic references which like this are casual, and do not relate to plot or to demonstrating a character’s attitudes. Wouldn’t it be much funnier to change Moses’s name to Barclay (in line with Sheridan’s allegorical names), but keep all the stuff about moneylenders and criminal interest rates. Why not? I don’t believe we HAVE to respect the classics in every word. Barclay carries the intent and works for 2012.
Overall? If we could get tickets to see it again two hours later, we would have done.
Awful. You pay £4 for the programme for the entire summer at Bath which includes School for Scandal, Hysteria and The Tempest. The cast list mixes the three different productions. Simply irritating. Do I have to remember to take it back for Hysteria? And I’m not going to see The Tempest.
Given the somewhat convoluted plot, I think an RSC style very short synopsis and who’s who would be more valuable than Sheridan’s biodata.