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)