THEATRE / Dangerous Liaisons

WYCHERLEY'S The Country Wife ends in a stalemate. The virtuous Alithea has got rid of her foppish suitor and paired up with a rake instead. Otherwise nothing has changed. Horner, the mock- eunuch, has made two hasty off-stage scores, but paired off with nobody. Sir Jasper still occupies his fool's paradise with the insatiable Lady Fidget. And poor Margery Pinchwife is stuck with her dreadful old husband. All the play does is to lift the lid, and then replace it. An experiment has taken place under controlled conditions; and you can envisage a final scene with Horner in horn- rims delivering his findings on attitudes to drink and sex among London's female gentry of the mid-1670s to a meeting of the Royal Society.

Max Stafford-Clark, having had his wicked way with the texts of The Recruiting Officer and A Jovial Crew, takes no such liberties with Wycherley. There are a couple of rowdy part songs (by Ian Dury and Mickey Gallagher) on the mutual hatred of men and women; and Stephen Jeffreys supplies a pastiche prologue telling us that whatever happens on- stage is our fault, and we're still at it - witness the male

costume of perukes and Lycra cycling shorts which register the smallest tremor of the gluteus maximus. Beyond that, the show speaks only through the author.

You know exactly where you are with Jeremy Northam's vulpine Horner from his opening scene with the Doctor, played by Daniel York as an unsavoury voyeur. There is no investigative side to the intrigue; Northam, like all the unattached males, is simply after all the sex he can get. It is that infernal machine that keeps the plot running: men and women dislike and mistrust one another, but each has something the other can't do without. That is what English rude jokes are usually about; and Stafford-Clark's production is the rudest I have seen. In this his instinct is sound. If you have a line like, 'Wife, he is coming into you the back way', there is no point in faffing about, nothing is going to sanitise it. So David Delve fires it off like a cannon ball which hits the target when Lady Fidget (Abigail McKern) totters out of Horner's bedroom clutching a long-spouted teapot, remarking, 'We women of quality never think we have china enough,' and then makes the mistake of trying to sit down. Hilarious; then you recollect how cold-blooded it all is, how brutal the penalties for any woman who is caught out - and, yes, Jeffreys's prologue hits its mark.

Where the show goes wide is in treating every friendly exchange between the men, from routine hellos to the foppish compliments of Simon Dormandy's otherwise brilliant Sparkish, as an occasion for stopping the comedy and modulating into a tone of deep sincerity. Maybe they would be happier as all boys together; but that is not what the lines mean, and who cares about the comradely potential of characters like Jonathan Phillips's reptilian Harcourt, or Robin Soans's Pinchwife, a panicky tyrant who threatens to cut his wife's eyes out?

That threat comes during the letter scene: the ugliest and funniest passages of the play side by side, both pushed to the limit by Soans and Debra Gillett's quick-learning Margery. They should cancel each other out; instead each enhances the other. That is the real measure of this revival. At some points it reflects our world; at every point it enlarges Wycherley's.

In his recent Montreal production, Robert Lepage had the wonderful idea of staging The Tempest in a rehearsal room where the play comes to life in the imagination of the actors. Something like this also happens in Sam Mendes's version, which similarly conjures up the island with a few basic props. Unlike Lepage, though, Mendes does not start from zero. Take the opening. Ariel (Simon Russell Beale in a Mao suit) climbs out of a skip and launches the storm by setting a ship's lantern swinging like a huge pendulum. A thrilling spectacle, but it occupies an undefined zone between stage trickery and natural magic. We seem to have joined the show midway through the creative process, and that impression persists. For every fully developed insight there is a bright idea going nowhere. Ferdinand staggers on with a heavy log, which in Miranda's hands becomes as light as a feather. Trinculo (David Bradley in good form) arrives in clown boots carrying a ventriloquist's doll whose presence then has to be justified with additional dialogue. Everyone will remember this as the production in which the liberated Ariel spits in his master's face: an effective shock, but shocks come cheap when they have no preparation and no consequences.

In retrospect, maybe one should have sensed that trouble was brewing between Alec McCowen's testy Prospero and his servant who pads about more in the likeness of a haughty butler than an airy spirit. Beale's singing is exquisite and the most unearthly element in the show. But he is not one to be ticked off on matters of petty discipline. He also

requires a grander master. McCowen deploys a down-to- earth schoolmasterly range, delicately graded between peppery outrage and gritty affection. He is an ironist who finds laughs in surprising places. But as he lacks magnitude, he comes over as a low-status partner to his excessively dignified menial.

The bitterly unreconciled masterpiece into which this production may develop is simultaneously visible in David Troughton's magnificent Caliban, passionately bewailing his lost inheritance, while blindly cleaving to the role of trusting underdog. And in piercing

moments such as Miranda's (Sarah Woodward) entranced view of the brave new world - which she recognises in the villainous Sebastian. I await a transformation when the show reaches the Barbican.

Thornton Wilder subtitled The Matchmaker 'a farce'; and so it would seem from its Plautine credentials of two wily servants escaping a skinflint master for a sexy night on the town. But in Wilder's hands, a fairy godmother arrives to entrust the runaways to a pair of kind ladies, and reveal the skinflint's heart of gold. This ought to spell death to farce. But in Patrick Mason's richly enjoyable production it simply demonstrates Wilder's ability to humanise these cruel old theatrical blood-sports without killing the fun. Less well played, it could look like cheating, with plot-lines abruptly diverted from disaster and tricky character changes conveniently shunted off stage.

Played as it is by Prunella Scales, Isla Blair and Frank Lazarus, you feel in the presence of a virtuoso sage whose optimistic charm is based on a thorough understanding of the unappetising alternatives. Look out for the passages of direct address (John Rogan on limiting yourself to one vice at a time, Scales on the benefits of marrying for money), for whose sake alone the show is worth seeing. Forget Hello Dolly], here is the real thing.

'Country Wife', Swan, Stratford- upon-Avon; 'Tempest', Royal Shakespeare, Stratford-upon- Avon; both 0789 295623. 'Matchmaker', Festival, Chichester, 0243 781312.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible