The 200 theatregoers at our sell-out Outing last Thursday (11 October 2007) to The Country Wife - the launch production in the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s major new initiative, a season of work produced under its own flag, initially under the artistic direction of former Almeida chief Jonathan Kent – were treated to insights into Restoration comedy and much more when we were joined by Kent and members of the company for an exclusive post-show discussion.

William Wycherley’s 1675 classic revolves around notorious man-about-town Horner (Toby Stephens) who schemes to seduce the women of London society, not least Lady Fidget (Patricia Hodge), by spreading a rumour that he’s impotent. Meanwhile, the newly-married Pinchwife (David Haig) fights to keep his naïve country bride (Fiona Glascott) from the clutches of predatory London bachelors, including Horner. And Horner’s friend Harcourt (John Hopkins) is desperate to woo Pinchwife’s saintly sister Alithea (Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh) away from her intended.

Hodge, Haig, Glascott, Hopkins and Dermot-Walsh joined fellow cast members Nicholas Day (Sir Jaspar Fidget) and Tristan Beint (Dorilant) as well as Jonathan Kent for the discussion, which was chaired by editorial director Terri Paddock.

The Country Wife runs until 12 January 2008. The Haymarket’s inaugural season then continues with a revival of Edward Bond’s The Sea (17 January to 19 April 2008) and the world premiere of Boublil and Schonberg musical Marguerite (6 May to 1 November 2008). All of the production are directed by Jonathan Kent and designed by Paul Brown, with lighting by Mark Henderson and sound by Paul Groothuis.

For more photos and feedback on last Thursday’s event, visit our Outings Blog. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …

On the Haymarket’s new venture

Jonathan Kent: Most West End theatres are receiving houses, they grab whatever somebody else is producing. The idea was to create a producing house in the West End – and I can’t think of a more beautiful and historic building to have it in – because what that can do is generate a kind of energy. The West End is perennially being written off. All of this is slightly overheated and overstated, but it is true that you can count on the fingers of one hand the straight plays that have been born here. The danger has been that the straight play particularly has become the province of the subsidised theatre. If it’s successful it transfers, but in the main, it stays at the National or my old theatre the Almeida or the Donmar. I think that’s a pity because the glory of British theatre, and London theatre in particular, is how varied and various it is. If the West End simply becomes the province of the musical and the subsidised theatre becomes the province of the straight play, that diminishes us. The idea of having a West End theatre that generates its own work, including plays, is positive, imaginative and potentially exciting. Imagine if there were two or three West End theatres doing this, imagine what that would do.

Patricia Hodge: That’s what we all joined for. It’s an important, confident move this. Because the West End is a sort of nervous place. There’s hardly any management now that will start a play straight into the West End. They’ll nurture it, they’ll take it on the road, they’ll try it somewhere small and say, if it works, we’ll take it in. So this is a really confident move. And I think that others will follow.

On editing & why The Country Wife is a genuinely funny Restoration comedy

Jonathan Kent: It’s an early Restoration play and it’s a situation-driven play as opposed to later ones that become much more about language and wit. This is one which has archetypical situations.

David Haig: I think Jonathan’s edited it terribly well. There’s more than three-quarters of an hour taken out of the script. That alleviates it of that huge verbosity that a lot of restoration plays have. You get to the curtain much quicker.

Patricia Hodge: There are a lot of references that aren’t worth dwelling on. They were relevant then, but they’re not relevant now so what we do is just take the action and move it. We only do what is absolutely relevant to the play.

On the play’s morality & immorality

Nicholas Day: Historically, it’s been considered a quite immoral play. For a long time, it was deemed unperformable for its scenes of adultery and infidelity.

John Hopkins: Bowdlerised versions of it were performed until about the 1930s, The Country Girl and things like that … In a way, our relationship (between Harcourt and Alithea) in the play is like some kind of horrible Blair third way - between the rampant jealousy of Pinchwife and the astonishing relaxation of Sparkish. Sparkish finds it possible that anyone would cheat on him, and Pinchwife finds it impossible to believe that anyone would not cheat on him. In the middle, there’s the idea that you can have a relationship of equals which isn’t sickening or juvenile or sappy, but simply a meeting of witty intelligent people who size each other up and find an adult common ground. There’s a touch of Beatrice and benedick, but the parts aren’t big enough.

David Haig: I think it’s interesting that you talk about the morality of this play. Because essentially you have two choices (when staging it). Jonathan and we all made a self-conscious choice to make it celebratory rather than cynical. One could go down a very dark avenue and explore the amorality of all the characters. But this was a very conscious decision to elevate and celebrate life and fun and sex.

Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh: Which I think really fits with the fact that it’s early Restoration. People hadn’t had time yet to grow sick of the new liberalism. At the beginning, they were celebrating the idea that they could be immoral and naughty and they could go to the theatre and see women playing parts.

David Haig: There’s sort of a hint of the 1920s, post-First World War about it.

On the challenges of historical language & asides

Patricia Hodge: It’s much more vocally muscular. It’s taken us the four weeks of rehearsal and the two weeks of previews to really really be on top of it. The demands are much greater.

Nicholas Day: The vernacular of the play is so unlike today’s. It’s full of comes and nays and prithees and faiths. And getting those in the right order is a tremendous impediment to learning the lines. My wife goes through my lines with me and says, “no that’s not a come, that’s a faith, darling”. We all do a little warm-up to get the facial muscles working. Because it’s a comedy, speed and clarity is vital - and to combine speed and clarity is tricky.

David Haig: On the few occasions when you’re flying with the language, when the rhythm and the flow of it are working, it’s very exciting. And almost more exciting than contemporary language. But that’s not the whole time.

Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh: You work so hard to get to a point where it seems easy.

John Hopkins: It’s not just a question of delivering archaic language versus modern language. It’s delivering it with a facility that these characters have to have – with confidence and wit and brio. There’s never an uncertainty or hesitancy about which word comes next. It has to be like a brilliant, delicate filigree that you can toss up at any moment.

Jonathan Kent: It’s a theatre of presentation. Restoration theatre was a way of the actors exhibiting themselves - both physically but also in terms of their dexterity and brilliance with language. That was a very important component with these plays. That’s why there’s no uncertainty at all, there’s hardly a single hesitation except very specifically. That’s the nature of it. They have a carapace of confidence and brio that’s very important but that’s hard for us to do.

Patricia Hodge: It’s diametrically opposite to what we do that’s modern, whether it’s long pauses or language that’s very spare and simple. The modern is all about simplicity and the great truth and reality, and it’s introverted, where these plays are very extroverted.

John Hopkins: Yes, (modern plays are about) watching people struggle or think or find their way towards something … We’re already there! Even as one person finishes a line, you’re already ready and desperate to say the next bit.

Tristan Beint: In terms of the asides, I found it quite difficult in terms of maintaining what we see nowadays as that naturalism in playing because you’re taken right out of the situation. That was perfectly acceptable in theatre of the time, to step out of the scene and freeze in the background. So the writing could be quite sparse for certain characters. You find yourself creating business to feel involved in the scene, you feel compelled to do so. But at the time, you could just stand still, create a tableau.

John Hopkins: Yes, what do we (as actors) do when someone else is downstage talking to the audience? We just sort of strike poses and look at our fans.

On modern adaptations

Jonathan Kent: Shampoo (the 1975 film) acknowledges that it was based on The Country Wife. The story was transposed to Los Angeles in the Seventies and Horner (played by Warren Beatty) was a hairdresser who was apparently gay so was trusted with wives. The country wife was Julie Christie, so she was a girl from another country, she was English. It was a very precise and rather faithful adaptation of this play. There was also a musical adaptation at this very theatre, called Lust.

On blending periods in the costume design

Jonathan Kent: Doing any classical play is a conversation between the time and circumstance in which it was written and the time and circumstance in which it is now being performed. Both parties have to have their voice. Sometimes it doesn’t need anything more than the mere fact that we are now performing it. But we thought it might be more interesting with the costumes to allow people to wear jeans and a shirt and yet retain the outline and shape of a Restoration longcoat. It was about trying to find a language that wasn’t glaring and didn’t intrude itself but also didn’t retreat behind the sort of plate-glass period historicism. So it wasn’t all fans and beauty spots. It had a sort of directness, and I hope, a sort of accessibility so that the characters are simply there rather than viewed through a looking glass.

On Pinchwife’s graphic threats to his wife

David Haig: There are two lines like that. He threatens to stab out her eyes and he threatens to write whore in her face with a penknife. It’s very interesting (that we didn’t edit them out). I think it’s very important that they stay in because of their brilliant extremity really. If you take our course with the play – to celebrate rather than be cynical – then the challenge with those two lines is to render them safe. In this case, what we tried to do is make Pinchwife a man who simply cannot find what’s in his packed pockets. This utterly threatening line is destabilised by the fact that he only gets to the knife having chucked the wallet, the strap and everything else out so that by the time he actually makes the threat, it’s utterly impotent. The other vital ingredient is in the country wife’s response. And the country wife is simply not threatened.

Fiona Glascott: I find it funny, not frightening.

David Haig: I have the same problem at home. I’m furious all the time but they’re never frightened!

Jonathan Kent: When I said we wanted to make it celebratory, I didn’t mean we wanted to completely defang it. But what I mean is that the social criticism in it is implicit rather than explicit. I really believe that’s true to the nature of the play itself given the mores of the 17th century. I know there have been books written about how this can be viewed as a work of social criticism, but I would be surprised if that were true. I think that’s very unlikely given the nature of Wycherley himself. He ran off and married somebody he thought was going to make him extremely rich and then it turned out she’d lost all her money. He was furious and then fortunately she died and then he got thrown into prison because her debts came back on him… I don’t know that he was a great social moralist. Satirist, yes, but I think it was a satire that the audience shared.

For more photos and feedback on this event, visit our Outings Blog.