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Archive for the ‘Play Reviews’ Category

Last week I went to see a play. At a movie theater. London’s National Theatre came up with a very high-tech way to bring their shows to a broader audience, many of whom live abroad. Their plays are broadcasted live in a number of theaters around the world. Last year I went to see their production of Frankenstein which was absolutely mind blowing!

This year I missed a few of their shows, but last Thursday managed to get a ticket to Oliver Goldsmith’s  She Stoops to Conquer. And what can I say? It was hilarious! And I don’t mean a chuckle here and there or a pleasant smile at a witticism. I mean out-loud, roaring laughter for 3 hours straight.

The story is as follows, a wealthy country gentleman Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) wants to marry his daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly) to the son of an old friend. But because of a  practical joke played  by his stepson Tony Lumpkin (David Fynn), he is mistaken for an innkeeper and his daughter is take for a barmaid by the perspective bridegroom Marlow (Harry Hadden-Paton). This turns to be a blessing in disguise because while Marlow is incredibly shy around upper-class women, he’s quite the charmer with girls of a different sort. As Hardcastle  grows more and more incensed by the rude behavior of his prospective son-in-law, his daughter is quite taken with her confused suitor. At the same time, her cousin Constance (Cush Jumbo) is trying to claim her dowry and run away with her sweetheart Hastings (John Heffernan), as Mrs. Hardcastle (Sophie Thompson) schemes to marry her off to her son Tony. Chaos ensues.

Hastings (John Heffernan) surrounded by servants who all want to give him boots

This is definitely one of those plays that has aged well. Even though it was written in the 18th century, it feels as fresh and as funny today as it must have been two hundred years ago. Director Jamie Lloyd went for very broad humor. Every one is hamming it up to the max; there is no subtle acting in sight.

Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) and his daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly)

Kate is a wonderful heroine – funny, saucy and resourceful.  ‘Stoops to conquer’ really defines her personality; Kate is very much a negotiator. She gives a little to get a lot both with her father and her groom. Marlow, on the other hand, makes for a wonderful neurotic (did they have neurosis in the 18th century?) hero. He’s a bumbling fool around high-class ladies, but quite the rake among the simple folk. Sophie Thompson, whom I loved in Emma, plays a wonderful Mrs. Hardcastle. She speaks in a strange bellowing accent, probably imitating what she thinks is a way a fine lady in London would speak, and has the most peculiar gestures and facial expressions. Tony Lumpkin is a lovable buffoon. But the person who really steals the show is John Heffernan as Hastings. He is sweet, devoted to his beloved, a bit dopey and naive but very kind and generous. To me he was the emotional core of the whole play; and with his almost equally dopey, though determined sweetheart Constance, in many scenes outshone the main couple.

I was really glad that they decided to go with an 18th centurylook for the play. First, because I love 18th century costumes. And second, because this play just doesn’t need to be updated. Though the theme can easily translate into a modern setting, it works just as well as a historical play.

Rich heiress Constance Neville (Cush Jumbo)

The costumes were absolutely gorgeous! Everything from powdered bouffant of Mrs Hardcastle to the richly embroidered but distressed outfit of Tony Lumpkin to the exquisite dress worn by Constance made from sari fabric and decorated with tiny bells, looked absolutely perfect. I can write more about the costumes, but I feel like they deserve their own post.

What are they doing back there?

I often get very uppity about classical plays being remade for a modern audience with excessive amount of sexual innuendos and nudity, but unlike many other productions, She Stoops to Conquer really works as a bawdy comedy probably because it was written as one. There is no shortage of cleavage on display or very suggestive gestures and poses, but they work very well and only add to the general atmosphere of confused and rowdy fun.

If you haven’t seen this play already, I highly recommend you check it out.

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A Woman of No Importance was commissioned by the actor-manager of London’s Haymarket Theater, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, after the success of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde wrote the play during the summer of 1892 and it opened in April 1893.

The play, as it is usual for Oscar Wilde’s plays, is about the decadent and cynical leisured aristocrats who gather for amusement in a country house. Among them is a clever and witty dandy Lord Illingworth,who takes a shining to a young man, Gerald Arbuthnot, and hires him to be his secretary. Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald’s mother, a pious and seemingly respectable widow, is invited to the house to hear the good news about her son’s new position. However, on arrival, she realizes that the man who offered her son this post is also the man who seduced her and is Gerald’s father. Lord Illingworth is delighted to find out that he has a grown son and decides that this is the perfect time to start caring about him.

MRS. ARBUTHNOT. Stop, Gerald, stop! He is your own father!

Mrs. Arbuthnot wants to prevent her son from going with Lord Illingworth but finds herself in a hopeless situation realizing that because of his moral upbringing and upright character,  if she were to reveal to her son that Lord Illingworth is his father, Gerald would be the first to condemn her. The irony of this is not lost on Lord Illingworth. But when Mrs. Arbuthnot all but gives up,  Lord Illingworth makes a grave mistake. He makes a pass at Hester Worsley, a young, idealistic and opinionated American heiress. This young ‘puritan’ is outraged by this behavior and Gerald, who is in love with her, challenges Lord Illingworth.

MRS. ARBUTHNOT. There is no room in my boy's life for you. He is not interested in YOU.

Bloodshed is prevented by Mrs. Arbuthnot, who admits that  the man is Gerald’s father. After everyone has cooled off a bit, Gerald tries to persuade his mother to marry Lord Illingworth, since that is the only way she can reclaim respectability, but Mrs. Arbuthnot flat out refuses. Hester  sides with Mrs. Arbuthnot and asks them to come with her to America where they can start a new life. The play ends with Lord Illingworth trying to claim his son once again, but is told by Mrs. Arbuthnot that neither she nor her son need him anymore.  Lord Illingworth leaves, shamed and made redundant. At the end of the play he turns into a man of no importance.

The play may not be one of Wilde’s finest, but it has an array of great comedic characters and plenty of witticisms. The first act, which is often criticized for its lack of action, works very well as a contrast to the melodramatic and emotionally charged final acts. The insipid group of aristocrats with their petty problems sitting around and exchanging pleasant nothings sets up the mood for the rest of the play. These people never find out what drama is playing out between the main characters and they go about their business oblivious to almost everything except their own pleasure.

Mrs. Allonby, Lady Stutfield and Miss Hester Worsley by Yale Repertory Theatre, 2008

We have Lady Hunstanton who is a well-meaning, but generally clueless hostess; Lady Caroline, overprotective of her husband, who has problems with names and is rather traditional;  Lady Stutfield who is a bit naive and very silly;  Mr. Kelvil a politician and a moralist who has very poor social skills, a meek Archdeacon Daubeny; Lord Alfred Rufford who is constantly in debt and Sir John Pontefract, Lady Caroline’s quiet and weary husband.

Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth by Yale Repertory Theatre, 2008

However, the supporting cast is a lot more exciting and interesting than our main characters. Hester is very judgmental and self-righteous, while Gerald is pretty naive and uninteresting. Lord Illingworth is too cold to be a fun character and he seems to be trying too hard most of the time.

A poster for a production of' 'A Woman of No Importance' by Birmingham School of Acting, 2011

The subject matter and the tone of the play also feel very dated. The social mores have changed quite a bit since the late 19th century and the opinions of the characters, even the sympathetic ones, seem very archaic. The play suffers from Victorian moralizing and extreme melodrama. It is not easy to do and is not easy to do well.

I would stay away from re-imaginings or postmodern productions of this play. The text is so thoroughly a product of the late 19th century that it is almost impossible to imagine it in any other setting. Though, I would say that 1920s with its decadence could be a good place to set it in. The 50s, with its moral and social rigidity, is another era that would work for this play. If trying to avoid late Victorian fashions and the cost and difficulty of making them, these two time periods could be good alternatives.

All in all, A Woman of No Importance is an interesting piece on Victorian morality written by a man who was condemned, imprisoned and then exiled for not falling in line with said morality. This is not a comedy of sparkling wit; the undertones are too dark and the one-liners are delivered primarily by the villain of the piece. But if done right, it could still make people think about the the value we place on conventional morality and how it affects people’s lives.

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