THEATRE / Sexual designs of the time: The Country Wife, locked up for years, is out again. Georgina Brown compares three new productions

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The Independent Culture
There have only been four major productions of The Country Wife in the past 40 years - at Stratford East in 1955, at the Royal Court in 1956, at Chichester in 1969 and at the National in 1977. Then, all of a sudden, things changed. In the past few weeks, across the country, three major productions have been running almost concurrently. Admittedly, none plays the drama perfectly straight; each has its additions or omissions to play up (or down) the comic, tragic, satirical and farcical elements of the drama, but does the sudden rash indicate the rediscovery of a play for today?

Wycherley's play is set in the London of 1675, when England is wallowing in the after-effects of two lost wars, the Plague and the Great Fire; society is cynical and despairing, with a debt crisis as desperate as its moral crisis. In some ways, then, not unlike Britain 1993. This was not, however, the attraction of the play to the Heather Brothers, whose musical adaptation, Lust - circa 1661, is currently running in the West End. As Lea Heather explains, it was the plot that grabbed them when they saw an open-air production at Hever Castle. And to the plot, Lust remains true. As in the original, the rakish Horner (who, as his name suggests, is a maker of cuckolds) pretends to be a eunuch to gain easy access to any woman's bed-chamber and, as in the original, his disguise reveals the hypocrisy of all the other characters. But there all comparison with Wycherley stops. Pushing the play back 14 years enables the Heathers to disregard the play's cynicism. Where The Country Wife is dark, Lust is merely naughty.

In the opening scene the characters throw off their Puritan garb and celebrate the Restoration with the cheery conviction that vice is nice and lust a must; Denis Lawson's Horner is a Casanova with a swivelling Elvis pelvis; Sophie Aldred's country wife yearns for a bit of thrusting brute force. One critic called it 'bouncy and inconsequential', which is pretty much the case. What's missing from all the jolly jiggery-pokery is the subversive comedy of the play proper.

Nevertheless, Lea Heather was irritated by the critics' comparisons of Lust with the play on which it was 'based'. 'It's as true to the story as West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet,' he says. 'The difference is that where it romps, it romps more. We dropped anything obscure - there's no time for detail.' Despite the two-dimensionality that the musical form imposes, director Bob Carlton insists that 'It's a very good adaptation. It has kept to the spirit of Wycherley's wit. It's a play about the ruling classes and sexual hypocrisy - people of quality defending the morals of the nation. And it speaks directly to today's audience. You only have to look at the tabloid press to see the Government calling for a return to Victorian values and the rogering in high places that goes on.'

But why not start again with characters other than Horner and Pinchwife? 'There are only so many stories,' says Carlton. 'Everybody uses each other's stories - Shakespeare never used original stories. Our next show is based on Jonson's The Alchemist - it's a show about greed in Big Bang England. Many of the contemporary references in that play, like The Country Wife, can't be understood, and that's why it's worth updating.'

At Harrogate Theatre, Andrew Manley's production put stockings and suspenders on the programme and, with more bare cheek, cut Alithea and Harcourt from the plot. This was partly pragmatism - the budget allows for an average cast of nine and a half actors per week - but also because Manley believes that Wycherley created this 'dull' couple to take the hard edge off the play and give it a moral setting. At the same time, Manley put a contemporary spin on the play's backdrop of a declining monarchy by adding a spot of toe- sucking and a video-screening of the Royal Wedding. The Princess of Wales, the production suggests, may not, like the country wife, have been the naive she appeared to be. And as for Horner's harem of Fidget, Dainty and Squeamish, one could only think of Camilla Parker Bowles.

One critic called the production 'brilliant and mischievous - Manley captures the moral climate of Majorland - all tight-lipped morality and uninhibited greed'. Another hailed the grim, inhuman Horner as 'vicious and without humour . . . the Aids plague writ large.' John McPherson, for the Harrogate Theatre, says this was precisely the point: 'We would only do a play if it had a specific relevance for today. That production reflects what we think about this play now. If we were to do it next year, I'd like to think that things would have changed and the interpretation would necessarily be different.'

Max Stafford-Clark, who is directing for the RSC, is happy to leave the play largely to Wycherley. When he re-read it, he considered setting it in a New York hairdressers, where the sharpness of the dialogue and the drama's metropolitan sophistication would emerge bitingly: 'One of the priorities of the time is that wit is more important than feeling, you get a great sense of this in a New York context.' On further examination, however, he decided that it was the play's own world that was more fascinating.

'When I did King Lear, what interested me was what the play could say about Europe now, if you readjusted it just a bit. What interests me about The Country Wife is what it says about England then, about the society that produced this philosophy, this despair, these cynical people. Wycherley sets it in Russell Street in the New Exchange, which had only just been built in 1666. Apart from the City comedies, this is the first time in English history that playwrights were writing about the period.

'Charles brought back from exile all these aristocrats but couldn't give them their lands back, so he created a court, he created leisure and people with sufficent money not to do work. The setting for this play is like an ocean liner with people drifting about, having affairs, bitching about those who did have jobs.'

For all Stafford-Clark's obsession with the world as it was then, the present can be almost felt in the lycra bicycling shorts that the fops wear under their Restoration-cut coats. It can also be heard loud and clear in the Prologue, which has here been rewritten by Stephen Jeffreys and includes a gentle dig at its musical counterpart. 'And our dear Poet, whose bones have long been dust / Is resurrected in the shape of Lust', it runs, adding, 'Tonight our actors scorn adapted wit / Speaking no line but what our author writ / Excepting but a Blockhead's song or two' - a reference to Ian Dury and Mickey Gallagher's brilliantly and bitterly satirical songs, in which the men and the women speak directly of their violent and venomous hatred for the opposite sex.

Stafford-Clark is confident that the songs are absolutely true to the spirit of the piece. 'The sexual politics of the period are something Wycherley is very astute about, but at one level unaware about. The women are treated appallingly. Horner says women are like spaniels, you kick them and they fawn, the only difference is that a spaniel is faithful to one master, women to any. The language of the men about the women and the women about the men is a state of cold war. It could have ended like a Jacobean tragedy: Pinchwife says to Margery, 'I will write whore with this penknife in your face.' All it needs is one extra twist for him to do it. But because it's a comedy and a farce, it's reassuring and makes you laugh at the corrupt nature of humanity, and that's a false reassurance.'

'Wycherley's text is a message from the past to the present; the new songs are a message from the present to the past,' says Stafford-Clark. 'Broadly, a correspondance is what you ask from any revival - otherwise you run the danger of banality, of simply being entertaining. That's not enough.'

'Lust' Haymarket (071-930 8800); 'The Country Wife' Swan (0789 295623)

(Photograph omitted)