Absolutely fabulous

High jinks and verbal gaffes come to Bristol with Sheridan's <i>The Rivals</i>
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The Independent Culture

Rachel Kavanaugh is deep in rehearsal for her latest production, The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic. "Last year, I was working back to back," she says. "I directed seven shows in succession. But this year - I hope - I will have some pauses in between the shows."

Rachel Kavanaugh is deep in rehearsal for her latest production, The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic. "Last year, I was working back to back," she says. "I directed seven shows in succession. But this year - I hope - I will have some pauses in between the shows."

Kavanaugh was formerly associate director of Birmingham Rep and has just finished directing a production of A Doll's House by Ibsen, starring Tara Fitzgerald. She describes her current project as "the polar opposite" of her last show. " A Doll's House is absolutely about psychological realism," she says. "It is about looking into a room where a marriage is falling apart. You observe and are invited to believe that it is really happening."

The Rivals, by contrast, was written in 1775 - 104 years before A Doll's House - and, as with many plays of that period, involves the audience in the drama. "There is no sense of a fourth wall, as there is in many modern plays. It is the opposite of Big Brother. We are not looking through a glass screen at something real that is happening. We are being presented with a story for our enjoyment. The characters are always aware of the fact that they are in a play and that there is an audience there. As well as the convention of asides, there is a sense of public playing."

The Rivals was the first play Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) created. Written when he was just 23, it drew on his own romantic life while he lived in Bath, and traces the rough path of true love for Captain Jack Absolute and the hopelessly romantic Lydia Languish, who is determined to live the life of a romantic heroine. "Sheridan uses material from his own life-experience, rather cheekily, because he satirises it and encourages us to laugh at it. It is extremely sophisticated of him," says Kavanaugh.

In the process, Sheridan produced a play that turned the melodrama style of the day on its head with a conversational mode of dialogue. After The Rivals, he wrote The Duenna, The School for Scandal and The Critic, before abandoning plays for politics.

There are many references to Sheridan's life in The Rivals. "By the age of 23, he had fought two near-fatal duels over the woman he later married [Elizabeth Ann Linley] with one of her other suitors," Kavanaugh says. "He was also interested in the use of language, which of course is a great joke in the play with Mrs Malaprop, who misuses words all the time. In real life, Sheridan's father ran a language academy, and the relationship between Jack Absolute and his father, Sir Anthony Absolute, was also drawn from the troubled relationship Sheridan had with his father."

Kavanaugh's most important advice to her cast is for them to imagine that the audience is made up of people very much like them. "For Jack, that is young soldiers with complicated romantic involvements, and for Lydia, it is an audience full of 17-year-old girls who read romantic fiction."

'The Rivals', Bristol Old Vic tomorrow to 12 June (0117-987 7877)

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