In George Etherege’s 1676 Restoration comedy, which is updated to 21st-century London in NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s production, Dorimant (Tom Hardy), who can generally charm any woman in town back to his apartment, can’t persuade Belinda (Hayley Atwell) into his bed until he’s promised to dump Mrs Loveit (Nancy Carroll), his current mistress. Meanwhile, Old Bellair (Madhav Sharma has arranged a marriage for his son, Young Bellair (Amit Shah), to Harriet, who has her sights set on Dorimant, and Sir Fopling Flutter (Rory Kinnear) has arrived “hot from Paris” and eager to impress.
The play is set in a London obsessed with having it all, and takes a steely look at young people driven by the need to have the latest clothes, the latest gossip and each other’s bodies. The Man of Mode opened on 6 February 2007 (following previews from 29 January) in the NT Olivier (See Review Round-up, 7 Feb 2007).
At Monday’s Q&A, which was hosted by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock, the cast gave insights into making Restoration comedy accessible to a modern audience, how they researched their characters, and avoiding clichés.
Highlights from the discussion follow…
On making modern work
Amit Shah: I was given the script and all the modernisations were already in there with the mobile phones and emails. It just seemed that everything fitted in a modern context, so I was impressed with that.
Madhav Sharma: It’s difficult to do a play set today without every sort of Briton in it, whatever the colour of their skin, and it made sense to have the arranged marriage part of the plot with an Asian family. I think it works very well. I like the fact that the play has got no moral judgement. It doesn’t patronise the audience and lets you make your own mind up. It’s just an outpouring of lust and fun and people with lots of money having a good time, and that’s very similar to what I see in society today. I think updating it to a modern setting makes it more accessible. I think sex, money, power, these things are timeless and I don’t think any of that changes.
Nancy Carroll: The challenge is making the characters believable given that the language is so theatrical; and also it’s a fairly vacuous play. There’s no particular moral theme because Etherege wrote it about and within his own peer group. It wasn’t an objective piece, it’s almost like a diary, with a rather frivolous beginning, middle and end. And so in order to make these characters believable and these people modern and not highly stylised Restoration comedy clichés that people have come to expect.
Tom Hardy: I approached it like doing Latin, and thought “how would I make this text make sense to my friends today?”. Some of it you have to bend and crowbar into a modern context, but when it works it really works so well. Most of (the text) didn’t have to be changed much. Some of the satirical elements of pinpointing actual people have been changed, but apart from changing coach to cab, it’s pretty much the original text in its entirety.
Rory Kinnear: We all had to look at people we knew when we were shaping our characters to make it relevant in a modern setting. When I thought about my character, I thought “I know quite a few of these people, they’re my friends!” And it was great to sit down with the designer and say, let’s get some images together. We were looking through fashion magazines to come up with things that we thought were on the right side of possible but also on the right side of funny.
On their characters
Tom Hardy: He’s not a very nice character. The Earl of Rochester, who Dorimant is based on, renounced his ways and became a Christian on his deathbed, much to the dismay of his friends, which is a shame. I’ve had letters from archivists and people who don’t like my interpretation, but I had to make some character decisions. The way I see him he’s hugely empty - he’s funny on the surface but there’s this big, God-shaped hole in his life that he’s just surfing over. He knows that it’s all pointless.... I think he's hurtling towards death very quickly. I think he dies not that long after the end of the play.
Rory Kinnear: In terms of what drives my character, probably like Dorimant, he has a similar sense of loneliness and a similar sense of emptiness but with less self-awareness.
On the best aspects of the play
Madhav Sharma: It is a mean little play in a way because it doesn’t seem to have much compassion, but underneath the comedy there is some melancholy in it and a lot of heartache.
Amit Shah: I like the fact that a lot of younger audience members are enjoying Restoration comedy. It’s fresh and a lot of the sense is the same, even though some of the references have changed. It still feels very modern and a lot of young people have said they can relate to it, which is great.
Rory Kinnear: The best thing, I hope, about the production is that it does entertain, but there’s a point ten minutes or 15 minutes afterwards when you think, “hang on, that play I thought was really funny at the time was actually a bit dirty and sad”.
On sparkly shoes & love songs
Rory Kinnear: (Mock outrage) Of course, I play the piano myself! I can’t believe people keep asking me this - what was the point of ten years of piano lessons?! Yes, I do play the piano myself for the love song, and I wrote the song myself – only because the composer wrote me something too difficult first!... Would I buy any of my costumes? No! My sparkly shoes were £300, so even with a half-price knock down that’s £150 that I don’t think I want to spend!
- by Caroline Ansdell