William Wycherley's first play, Love in a Wood is set in the reign of Charles II, in the London of Samuel Pepys. The "Wood" in question is St James's Park which after dark becomes a busy cruising ground for casual and anonymous sexual encounters. Sex is there in abundance, as is the greed for money, but "love" is in very short supply.
The plot is intricate and, at times in the first act, you need to concentrate to remember who exactly is being unfaithful to whom, with whom. But, in the second act, all this complexity resolves itself and everything falls perfectly into place - rather like a PG Wodehouse plot. Four couples start and finish the play together, but lie, cheat, test and betray each other in the interim. A hypocritical Puritan is sexually compromised and blackmailed and the course of true love runs anything but smoothly.
After his unhappy time at the National Theatre, director Tim Supple is back to his top form at Stratford. He tells this funny, sexy, amoral, cynical story with verve and conviction, managing to avoid the artificial and exaggerated foppery of much Restoration comedy and show us real people burning with desire for sex and money. Louis Hilyer could easily have fallen into the trap of making Sir Simon Addlepot a camp fool, but his energy and earnestness are just what the play needs.
This production is a credit to ensemble acting. The play has no star role - the ten leading parts are evenly matched - and the cast has no star performer. You need to mention either ten names or none. The acting is uniformly good - although someone with a little more sexual charisma than Robert Bowman as Ranger might have given the action an even more dangerous edge.
Dramatically situated somewhere between Shakespeare and Sheridan - or, to be more precise, between Thomas Dekker and Oliver Goldsmith - this play catches the mood and style of the period well. Readers of Pepys' Diary will recognise the Restoration London portrayed - fast, racy, promiscuous, avaricious, hypocritical (remarkably like London today). In modern terms, it combines the realism and angst of EastEnders with the zany humour of a Carry On film, while being far more bawdy than either.
Inexplicably, Love in a Wood has been hardly ever produced. Although written in 1671, this is to all intents and purposes a new play. Often when plays like this are rediscovered, you wish they had been left in decent obscurity - but not so in this case. It's a gem, a delight and a vindication of the RSC's policy of exploring the neglected classics rather than just safely sticking to the well-worn mainstream repertoire. Directors of the National Theatre please note!
Love in a Wood opened at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19 April 2001 (previews from 12 April) and continues there in repertory until 12 October 2001.