The School for Scandal, Barbican Theatre, London
Tuesday 24 May 2011
Deborah Warner's production of Sheridan's 18th-century comic masterpiece is a blast. The stage is strewn with huge, leaning pieces of scenery, scrawled captions, ladders, shopping bags. A fashion show is in progress, models bearing down on the audience in torn clothes, with rough placards of character traits --"Mr Hypocrite"; "A Teasing Temper"; "Perverse and Obstinate".
The play improper begins with Matilda Ziegler's calumnious Lady Sneerwell snorting coke while getting dressed with Gary Sefton's attendant Snake and setting off to the college of gossips, where no wit bites without malice and Mrs Candour (Vicki Pepperdine) lays all and sundry out to filth in the nicest way. These people are recognisable contemporaries, and you don't have to lose the elegance and architecture of Sheridan's play to prove it. The two main narratives – the bickering of Sir Peter Teazle with his young wife and the quest of Sir Oliver Surface to discover which of his nephews, the "dissolute" Charles or the "sentimental" Joseph, is to be trusted – unravel in a world of sexual intrigue, bitchiness and hedonism.
We are straight into tweeting, privacy laws and super-injunctions, without spelling it out (except for one delicious anachronistic mobile phone moment). Warner and her cast let the play float into modernity.
Eighteenth-century costume, after all, is parodied by Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. It is a small step to make Charles, played with extraordinary skill by Leo Bill, a fall-about version of Pete Doherty, totally off his face but touchingly loyal when retaining his uncle's portrait at the auction. Similarly, Katherine Parkinson's Lady Teazle is a fun-loving husky young dame who convincingly grows into love and Aidan McArdle's Joseph is a fine study in troubled insincerity: the famous "screen scene" is thunderously executed, adulterous hypocrisy exposed at a stroke.
The most brilliant stroke, though, is the heavyweight casting of the semi-immobilised but still magnificent Alan Howard as Sir Peter, giving a master class in style and stillness in high comedy, alongside John Shrapnel's bustling, humourous Sir Oliver and John McEnery's well-spoken Rowley. Highly theatrical, provocative and intelligent, the show is unmissable.
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