Deborah Warner’s triumphant, provocative and very noisy production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal could not be more different from Peter Hall’s genteel and picturesque revival of Sheridan’s other great play, The Rivals, last year.
The irony is that Warner follows Hall’s RSC mantra of treating a classical masterpiece like a brand new play, and she tunes it right on to our wavelength of relishing the gossip, superficiality and moral hypocrisy of the day: there’s a pre-curtain fashion show, with the cast parading their virtues and vices on placards, to the accompaniment of loud, metallic rock music, dressed in modish shreds and tatters.
Jeremy Herbert’s design literally heaves into view, black and white canvases and etchings hoisted on pulleys; the brash informality of this presentation suits the kiss and tell, slapdash spiritedness of the play in the gossips’ school of Lady Candour, the auction scene in Charles Surface’s attic and the farcical resolution of the marital impasse between the bickering Sir Peter and Lady Teazle.
But Warner is utterly faithful to Sheridan and to the architecture of the five acts. At its core, Alan Howard as Sir Peter, half in a wheelchair, half out of it, is supremely funny and magisterial, and in the other senior role of Sir Oliver Surface, testing his two nephews, Charles (brilliantly played as a trembling booze and coke addict by Leo Bill) and Joseph (a subtle and tortuously subdued Aidan McArdle), John Shrapnel is an invigorating counterpart.
Warner’s ensemble is of a high, and creative, calibre. Katherine Parkinson’s Lady Teazle is an originally sensual and larkish foil to her own husband, while Gary Sefton’s subordinate Snake is a frenzy of poisonous licks and coiled contortions, Stephen Kennedy a viciously unpleasant Crabtree, Harry Melling a grotesquely self-regarding Sir Benjamin Backbite and John McEnery a miraculously un-dull Rowley.
Jean Kalman’s lighting is deliberately haphazard, very shadowy, in line with the improvised, energetic nature of the production, which makes of Sheridan’s comedy a fizzing and salutary play for today. The great “screen” scene is both funny and tremendous in the panache of its staging, and the skilfully compiled prose, rich in beautifully carved barbs, slights and aphorisms, rolls by on waves of reciprocal pleasure.
As Bernard Shaw said, Sheridan wrote for the actor as Handel wrote for the singer, with wit and nuance and real understanding, so it’s a significant treat to have this great text restored (it’s thirteen years since Declan Donnellan’s RSC revival played briefly on this same stage) in so dynamic and contemporary a treatment.