Theatre: Scandals, sleaze and that Mr Snake

Look at the RSC. It's riddled with bitching and backbiting. At least, that's what's happening on stage.
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The Independent Culture
His company at Stratford, Declan Donnellan reports, has become conscious of the urge to bitch behind one another's backs. This is understandable, given that they have been rehearsing Richard Sheridan's play The School For Scandal (written in 1777) where murdering reputations is as fine an art as painting for the eponymous cabal, with its Lady Sneerwells and Sir Benjamin Backbites. Has the cast's craving to dish the dirt been constrained by these circumstances, I wondered? "No, they've gone for it," laughed Donnellan, "Nobody is left standing."

Mercifully, nobody has walked out either, and tonight the production, designed by his partner and erstwhile Cheek By Jowl co-director Nick Ormerod, opens on the RSC's main stage.

From its first line ("The paragraphs, you say, Mr Snake, were all inserted?") The School For Scandal connects the world of character assassination and the rising power and manipulability of the press, specifically the infamous Town and Country magazine which had regular tete-a-tete exposes of society scandal, replete with engravings and transparent pseudonyms. One character is commended for concocting such items about couples who "have never seen each other's faces before in the course of their lives".

Recent stagings have emphasised the unsavoury role of the press. In Peter Wood's 1990 National Theatre production, the Georgian facades and elegant furnishings were all covered with closely printed journalism, and cartoon speech-ribbons fluttered out from every edifice on the set's London skyline.

Levels of public prurience have often been pointedly juxtaposed. At the start of a recent Chichester production, what looked like a typically well-heeled member of the audience wandered on to the stage and, in a teasing update of David Garrick's verse prologue, pretended to sympathise with the victims of the smutty tittle-tattle ("A duchess enjoying summer weather/should not be snapped in the altogether") found in her copy of the Daily Mail.

Donnellan is taking a different tack. Press power will come to the fore, but only by stealth, through the sneaky, gradual aggrandisement of Snake. Before that, attention is likely to be centred on the production's radical new framing-conceit.

In this School For Scandal, Sheridan's comedy will be performed in a dissolute gaming and drinking den by actors and actresses "of a certain reputation" in front of the young Prince of Wales, son of (mad) King George III, and the royal intimate on whom Sheridan, the later politician, pinned his hopes of power.

Why this elaborate play-within-a-play device? Part of the reason for this comes from Donnellan's sense that the play's stylish surface is like an ornate lid on the violent jungle noises beneath.

"The more you say, 'I am not an animal', the more you hear the growls escaping," he argues.

It is also about wanting to show the cultural shifts depicted in the comedy as portents of Victorian morality - the Man of Sentiment humbug (parodied by Donnellan as "I have feelings, therefore I can do with you what I like") and the conversion of the cult of sensibility into a facade for prudishness and hypocrisy.

Hence the idea of presenting the play as "a kind of warning to the Prince of Wales about what Britain is going to become - and in some senses still is". Then again, the advantage of delivering the piece as an inset drama is that you don't have to pretend that Sheridan was in complete, rational control of his creation.

For example, in the dramatist's treatment of the two contrasted brothers - the cold, sanctimonious arch-hypocrite Joseph Surface, and Charles the good-natured libertine - there are little unconscious lapses that "give away a huge emotional need" in the author, who was himself the unfavoured scapegrace among two sons.

A flamboyant, thematically penetrating theatricality has always been the hallmark of Donnellan and Ormerod's work, whether it be their lovely, all-male As You Like It with its wonderfully illuminating comic-erotic tensions, or a recent Much Ado About Nothing that literally brought the house down in Moscow when a balcony collapsed under the weight of eager punters trying to cram themselves in. Their approach to The School For Scandal arose from a horror at the idea of people in costumes simply walking into drawing-rooms ("I felt suffocated by that, because I know it isn't true to the play"). The benefit of seeing louche actresses in a gaming den transforming themselves into Lady Sneerwell, Mrs Candour et al is that it will make you realise that their world of vicious new money respectability "isn't the only one and that the world of respectability drives people completely insane".

Bitching, declares Donnellan, is rarely about the butt of the bitching. He points to a key couplet, "Thus at our friends we laugh, who feel the dart;/ To reach our feelings, we ourselves must smart". Compulsive bitching is a way of expressing through attack a self-hatred that is too painful to confront directly. It's a distorted image of our own suppressed derangement; hence its ferocity. The director amusingly itemises various brands of scandalmongering, such as that of the solicitous Mrs Candour (played here by Celia Imrie) who can inflict more damage defending reputations than others can in all-out assault.

"She does it through passive aggression. She's one of those wonderful people who come up and say 'Ooh, are you all right?' and by the end of five minutes, you've been nurtured into a state of suicidal despair by care applied in the wrong way."

The celebrated climactic moment in Sheridan's comedy comes when a screen is dashed down, exposing a world of hypocrisy and double-dealing to a husband and to the audience. There's a controlling metaphor of surfaces and screens. Donnellan's point is that, ironically, the play itself offers a stylish surface you must not be fooled by. In plunging beneath that surface, this sounds as though it will be a School For Scandal well worth enrolling in.

Opens tonight at the RSC, Stratford (01789 295623)