Mrs Malaprop (Julie Legrand) is looking for a suitable husband for her niece, Lydia Languish (Lucy Briggs-Owen). But when a rich and handsome suitor, Captain Jack Absolute (Rhys Rusbatch) presents himself, Lydia’s desire to marry for love stands in the way of her aunt’s projects. The trouble is, the young lady is already in love with the romantically poor Ensign Beverley, none other than Jack himself, forced into concealing his real identity to match his betrothed’s (mis)conceptions.
A comical spinster, whose name has since entered the dictionary, a sentimental heiress and her suitor: such are the core elements of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic comedy of manners, The Rivals, premiered in 1775. As Citizens Theatre’s artistic director Dominic Hill brings it back on stage in this new production, is its satire as effective as it once was?
The design and direction are brimming with inventiveness. Throughout the play, a set of frames descends on the stage to accompany the characters’ entangled plots and reminds us of the social spectacle that we are witnessing. There are clothes hangers on the sides of the stage, the actors wince at their hand-mirrors, play with their wigs. In a protracted scene a protagonist waits with growing impatience while his servant is frantically shaking his portrait, taken with a Polaroid camera.
The production chooses the path of comical excess and caricature to carry out the play’s satire of vanity. Lucy Briggs-Owen’s performance is completely, delightfully over the top, with her noisy moaning, constant pouting and hopes of elopement with her ‘lovaaaah’. Julie Legrand and Desmond Barrit, who plays Sir Anthony Absolute, make a hilarious duo. Mrs Malaprop’s linguistic slips and Sir Anthony’s temper are portrayed with humour and energy. Some favourite moments involved Sir Absolute strutting on the stage brandishing a cane and his mock-gallant portrait of Lydia’s physical qualities (‘Her neck! O Jack!’).
At times slightly isolated in this absurd ensemble, Jessica Hardwick gives a nicely nuanced performance as Lydia’s cold-headed friend, Julia Melville, who has to put up both with her friend’s sentimentality and with her lover’s fastidious jealousy (portrayed by Nicholas Bishop). After another quarrel, she laments: ‘Oh woman, how true should be your judgement when your resolution is so weak?’ Everyone laughs, as we do at Mrs Malaprop’s intellectual and erotic pretensions as, a spinster of almost 50, she swoons over a lover – Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Keith Dunphy). Imagine the scandal. A distance separates us from Sheridan’s world, but the production is very true to the original spirit of the play in that it succeeds in making each and every protagonist’s vices and vanities ridiculous by pushing them to their caricatural extremes. Correcting morals with laughter is, after all, the purpose of all good comedies, and this production achieves it very successfully.