George Etherege’s scathingly funny portrait of London manners, fashions and hedonism is one of the most brilliant of Restoration comedies, and Nicholas Hytner’s revival in the Olivier is a stunningly brilliant production to match. In an age when style columns and fashion fascism are dominating our newspapers and magazines, Etherege’s play seems less a remote classic than a much-needed contemporary satire.
We first meet the anti-hero Dorimant – played by Tom Hardy as a smug, heavily tattooed, vacuous amalgam of Alfie, Casanova and David Beckham – cavorting with scantily clad models at a fashion shoot. This is the first of several interludes which Hytner and choreographer David Bolger have devised to cover the scene changes and give a vivid physical dimension to the metropolitan charade.
Showered and suited, Dorimant – widely taken to be a sketch by Etherege of his friend, the royally approved rake the Earl of Rochester -- soon joins the dirty dancing en route to Mrs Loveit’s lodgings, which are here transformed by designer Vicki Mortimer into a clothes shop where the models are briskly and sexily trying out their new baby doll nighties.
Nancy Carroll as Mrs Loveit – a soigné, smouldering Rita Hayworth figure with a wine bottle under the counter and a seething anger at Dorimant’s waning attentions – runs the place with Belinda (Hayley Atwell) whom Dorimant is now stalking under cover of a masked encounter at the theatre, and the seen-it-all shop assistant Pert, played with Judi Dench-like sagacity and edge by Penny Ryder.
Perhaps the Hytner masterstroke here is to cast the parallel plot of Bellair’s secret engagement to Emilia, while fending off his father’s arranged marriage plans, with Asian actors. So, Amit Shah as Bellair is pinched and punched by his overweening father (Madhav Sharma) who is flirting with his own son’s beloved Emilia (non-Asian Abby Ford) while lining up the Yorkshire heiress, Harriet (Amber Agar), who may finally prove a match even for the priapic Dorimant.
The dynamics of the comedy are powered by the Yorkshire “otherness” of the Woodvill set, and also by the incursion from France of the play’s most famous character, Sir Fopling Flutter, the leader of the fashion pack in tassels and fringes and increasingly imprisoned by his own modishness. Rory Kinnear rescues the role entirely from the Donald Sinden school of Restoration foppishness, embracing ever more ludicrous street styles with every appearance (bomber jackets, glitter shoes, distressed capes), surrounded by air-punching hoodies and delivering his Lully-style dead-of-night song as a tearful rock chanson at the piano.
Finally set up with Loveit who treats him abominably, Kinnear’s Flutter descends into a transparent, deadly melancholy from which he will only recover with the next fashion-packed sortie to the continent. It is a brilliant performance.
The world of the play is sustained architecturally, too, in the bleak monumentalism of the hotel foyer where Bellair and Harriet pretend to be in love in order to protract the plot, and in Dorimant’s lascivious lair, where he beds and deludes the vacillating Belinda (her dilemmas are beautifully wrought by Ms Atwell). Tom Hardy’s beau faces the monde with the chattering, wiseacre advice of his creepy friend Medley, whom Bertie Carvel plays as a fruity-voiced savant with GQ elements of Peter Yorke and Dylan Jones. A truly delirious and delightful evening.