Mischief is afoot in the School for Scandal. Photo by Matthias Engesser.
The School for Scandal
By Richard Sheridan
Directed by David Burrowes
New Theatre, Newtown
Season: 28 April – 30 May. Bookings: http://newtheatre.org.au/buy-tickets-2/
Back in 1777, vast class distinctions existed in England, whereby the upper class indulged in all their hedonistic desires, working little and gossiping frequently. From this context Richard Sheridan crafted The School for Scandal.
David Burrowes’ production of the play suggests that in our modern age, perhaps little has changed. His School for Scandal s a largely traditional presentation of Sheridan’s work with a vital contemporary infusion, and it draws an interesting parallel between the past and the present, highlighting the farcical nature of this folly.
By nature of a farce, the plot is complicated and features numerous characters all with intertwining and conflicting motives. Lady Sneerwell enlists Snake to spread rumours about Charles Surface (she is in love with him, of course!) because Charles loves the upright Maria and she wants him for herself.
Charles’ brother Joseph Surface is meanwhile in love with Maria’s money and has a conscionable reputation thanks to Lady Sneerwell’s rumours.
Charles and Joseph are examined without their knowledge by their wealthy uncle Sir Oliver to determine who will receive his inheritance. Alongside this debacle, an older bachelor, Sir Peter, has married the young and beautiful Lady Teazle who is causing him strife and only uses him for his money. Lady Teazle is having an affair with Joseph. The play is not short of drama…
Comedy is incorporated at every opportunity, largely utilising irony and physical comedy. Madeleine Withington as Lady Teazle and Samantha Ward as Ms Candour employ stereotypical characteristics of superficial and flighty women to create humour as they gleefully exploit those around them. Decked out in leopard print attire, Ward continually highlights the outright hypocrisy of Ms Candour, in relation to her pronounced detestation of gossip and yet frequent engagement in the pastime.
Lady Teazle’s relationship with the exasperated Marty O’Neill as Sir Peter illustrates the cruel manipulation at play, and underlines Sir Peter’s desire to avoid being the embarrassing topic of gossip at great lengths. The audience was delighted by Billie Scott’s fabulously camp portrayal of Snake, albeit featuring for only brief episodes on stage.
The use of physical comedy is best exemplified in the play by Joseph’s servants’ performance, with Moreblessing Maturure, Emma Harvie and Nick Rowe. Partaking in very little dialogue, the servants successfully developed salient characterisations in the play largely through physicality and humour. Harvie’s comic timing was exquisite whilst being tormented by Charles, obliged to enter the room each time the bell was rung. Rhys Keir as Charles accordingly brought humour to this scene specifically, and his energy did not falter throughout the entirety of his performance.
The enemy of the performance is the length of Sheridan’s play, thus spanning three hours including intermission. This was a shame because it undermined the great comic work the performers were trying to pull off. This is not helped by the complicated plot, often an inherent feature of a farce, as it is difficult to communicate clearly and maintain audience engagement. The play never managed to reach a point of climax, seeming to push on at the same level, and hence the stakes of the situation didn’t seem to be high.
Isabella Andronos’ production design is certainly commendable, contributing to the contemporary infusion of the work. A stark white proscenium arch stage built into the New Theatre provides a canvas for scrutiny of the upper class and the ridiculous proceedings that play out.
The play is set within various rooms, contrasting private and public spaces that juxtapose truth and concealment. These spaces are enhanced by bold colour furnishings, bringing modern life to the picture. Sir Peter and Lady Teazle’s abode is decorated with irksome portraits of Lady Teazle’s pug, comedy even interwoven throughout the set design. Sheridan’s play format is divided by numerous scenes and acts that involve set changes, which was dealt with adeptly, utilising lavish gold curtains drawn between scenes and booming modern rap music. Ryan Devlin’s sound design was harmonious and complementary to Burrowes’ overall vision for the production.
Given apparent class tensions in Sydney today, Sheridan’s social commentary of the play remains relevant to a contemporary audience despite little adaption to the script.
This is a success of the production, as well as manipulating 18th century humour to still amuse over 200 years later. Does the School for Scandal continue to reign hapless to this day, or is it up to the students to stand up for the truth?