THEATRE / Lusting out all over: Paul Taylor on Max Stafford-Clark's production of The Country Wife at The Swan

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The Independent Culture
'He who lusts last, lasts longest,' quips the randy GP in Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus. It's a sentiment that could be applied to the two main versions this summer of The Country Wife, Wycherley's darkly astute Restoration comedy about a man who feigns impotence to get his leg over other people's wives.

The Heather Brothers scored first (so to speak) with Lust, which turns the drama into an uninspired saucy musical romp. Great play is made with Horner's supposedly lopped-off balls, seen pickled in a bottle; they aren't the only signs of emasculation in this bawdy, yet serenely uncorrosive entertainment.

Now, later off the mark, but causing longer and more thoughtful laughter, comes Max Stafford-Clark's cannily considered account of the play for the RSC. Sharply acted by a crack cast, the production makes intriguing, often persuasive adjustments to received opinion about this work.

First, Jeremy Northam's personable Horner shows us the acceptable face of Wycherley's devious erotomane. Instead of putting the accent on his nihilism, his isolation from his male friends (who aren't let in on the imposture) and his scorn for the women he services, the production gives him credit for being an independent spirit in an unlovely masculine world. Women, in this world, 'serve but to keep a man from better company' (ie other men), while for the most part the males are either so idiotically complaisant (like Simon Dormandy's whinnying fop, Sparkish) or so mistrustful (like Robin Soans's dour, obsessed Pinchwife) that they unconsciously collude in their own cuckolding. Horner's clever deceit is mostly at the expense of the male sex, for while he dupes the women also, these two-faced dames are in the market for what he is prepared to slip them.

Lips atwitch between prim censoriousness and ravenous prurience, Abigail McKern, Janet Dale and the laryngitic-with- lust Anne Lambton wittily embody women who are on their high horse and on heat. The sexy farcical aspects of the comedy are all the sharper for not being overplayed. Best of all are the little touches, like Lady Fidget's give-away wince (part pain, part remembered pleasure) when she sits down after having just been surreptitiously taken from behind in the room next to where her booby of a husband is holding forth. Debra Gillett, her face a comically open book to the audience, is also very funny as the country wife.

The production's most fruitful stroke, though, is to make Alithea, the normally pallid virtuous heroine, both interesting and just about coherent. Kate Duchene, all beauty spots and a slightly disturbed sophistication, plays her not as a soppy doormat, but as an anxious girl who over-values lack of jealousy in a fiance, because jealous men despatch their wives (horror of horrors) to the country. The picture of complicitous cockiness, Jonathan Phillips is splendidly forward as the gallant who manoeuvres to win her from under Sparkish's nose.

Ian Dury and Mickey Gallagher's songs which banally spell out the misogyny in the play, are, according to the director, 'a message from the present to the past'. But some may feel that it's a bit patronising to subject Wycherley to this posthumous correspondence course in feminism.

'The Country Wife' is at the Swan (Box office: 0789 295623)

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