Haymarket Theatre. The Haymarket Theatre Company, Jonathan Kent, Artistic Director. (Information as to when the present production opened is not included in the program. The season will continue with Edward Bond’s The Sea (January 17 – April 19, 2008) and Marguerite, a new musical (May 8 – November 1, 2008) based on La dame aux camélias.)
It is nothing less than astonishing to see a viable — more than merely viable — West End production of Wycherley playing at a prime theatre to a full house on a Wednesday night, but that’s what we saw at the Haymarket tonight. Very up-to-date in some ways, costumes being on the order of frock coats and jeans: metrosexual circa 1675, as seen through the lens of 2007. Settings on wagons, somewhat in the manner of ancient Greek periaktoi, turning swiftly to make almost instantaneous changes possible.
The key to the success of the piece is a combination of very swift, but not furious, pace; excellent diction, giving Wycherley’s language its full due and eliciting its ripe flavor; and bravura acting, on a slightly raked stage that drew the actors down for frequent direct playing to the audience, even while they engaged at close range with fellow actors. The standout, for bravura, was David Haig, who filled the role of Pinchwife to the skin, constantly out-topping himself and carrying on his manic jealous fits at fever pitch, sweating buckets all the while.
Jonathan Kent’s direction constantly finds physical things small and large to define and fill out a character and the constant, close-range encounter, even collision, of one actor with another. This is presentational acting at its very best, and at the same time of the traditional, British kind. I could imagine myself, close as I was in row B of the Haymarket stalls, to be at the Drury Lane premier of 1675, or perhaps in the Drury Lane of the early nineteenth century or the Haymarket of later in that era, seeing actors who knew how to acknowledge and draw into their embrace an audience full of eagerness to receive all that they had to offer. Of course, Wycherley’s play was far too ribald and coarse, and too frankly sexual, for the polite audience of the nineteenth century — and, for that matter, the earlier audience of Steele and Garrick and their successors. Imagine John Kemble attempting Pinchwife and Sarah Siddons as Margery — the idea is ludicrous and preposterous.
So much the worse for that more correct, less tolerant age. We, in this later time (whatever may be said of its shortcomings), are the happy latter-day beneficiaries of a restoration of our own of the indigenous, indefatigable spirit of English comedy.