You probably know the phrase “director’s theatre”. It can describe a personal attitude to a particular work which so illuminates it that the audience is left wondering why no-one had ever staged it in quite this way before – and will never regard other productions as quite so thought-provoking and completely satisfying.
Director’s theatre can also be a term of reproach. That's not completely true fas far as Gari Jones’ production of Sheridan’s The Rivals for the Mercury Theatre is concerned, but there are moment’s when it comes perilously close. Granted that Sheridan’s characters are in many way social and stage “types”; their names tell you that – Absolute, Acres, Languish, O’Trigger – but there are human beings underneath all the surface froth and formulaic satire.
These people do emerge from time to time and it is telling that the subsidiary characters are the ones who make the most impact. Nadia Morgan as sore-tested Julia and David Tarkenter as her impossibly-demanding lover Faulkland (we know that he carries a black chip on his shoulder, but why is this a shawl of glossy crow feathers?), Clare Humphrey’s pertly avaricious Lucy] and Roger Delves Broughton’s not-so-servile Fag are the winners.
Katherine Manners makes Lydia into a more-than-usually tiresome prom queen while Will Norris’ Jack Absolute only comes alive in his scene with Christine Absalom’s Mrs Malaprop. Absalom “points’ her character’s linguistic trip-ups a trifle too obviously while Ignatius Anthony is irascible as Sir Anthony, but not much else. Marshall Griffin’s Sir Lucius seems to have strayed in from the Wild West and Graeme Brookes’ Bob Acres certainly gives fresh impetus to the word “earthy”.
Amy Yardley’s costumes illustrate Jones’ burlesque/fairground booth concept and she has provided a set of steps and platforms edged with lights and with a sort of hana-michi thrusting into the auditorium which is extremely effective in the context of this production. Sheridan’s characters, like those of any other dramatist, are his puppets – marionettes to be manipulated. The director’s task is surely to conceal the strings, otherwise we are left applauding the cleverness and not the truths it should reveal.