IN HIS new collection of essays, The Post-Modernist Always Rings Twice, Gilbert Adair has a humorously honest piece called 'The first 15 minutes of Shakespeare'. He confesses that, for about that length of time at any Shakespeare performance bar the old war- horses, he remains quite in the dark about what the hell is afoot on stage. (It's an admission to which more than a few bosoms will return a guilty echo.) He claims, though, that this happens 'only with Shakespeare', which suggests that he has never experienced the intense but puzzled pleasure of sitting through Congreve's The Way of the World. A mere mauvais quart d'heure of worry about your IQ? Trois mauvaises heures, more like.
You negotiate this wonderful work with the permanent feeling of being a mite under-briefed as to what everyone is up to and why. The play never obliges you with an easy-to-read tourist's map of its maze of social and sexual subterfuge. As Peter Gill's splendid revival at the Lyric, Hammersmith, reaffirms, what matters in this comedy is less the route or destination than the rich, varied throng that Congreve convenes along it. And it's the flair with which the play illustrates the distinctions between its beau monde types that makes it so distinguished. Appropriately, one of the great virtues of Gill's very funny production is its discriminating clarity.
The spare elegance of Tom Piper's design gives the proceedings a lovely, uncluttered sharpness of focus. Each of the settings (from St James's Park to Lady Wishfort's house) is evoked in a tantalisingly fragmentary way with what look like tall thin snatches from a full oil-painting of the scene. The clean blondness of look throws the emphasis on people rather than bric-a-brac and, from the opening scene, Gill demonstrates his knack of positioning the characters so as to point up contrasts.
Superficially similar (both are masters of repartee and mistresses), the gallants Mirabell and Fainall are shown launching their witty, insinuating probes at one another from opposite ends of a long table. The spacing hints at how they are essentially poles apart, as the fine performances proceed to make clear. The nose- in-the-air, feet-on-the-table snottiness of Jonathan Phillips' mean- eyed Fainall exposes the ruthless lout behind the studied languor. Experience has only made him sour and worldly, whereas the sudden accesses of warmth and ardour in Jeremy Northam's more subdued and reflective Mirabell shows that it has left him unembittered and wise. In a striking sequence of duologues, the febrile acrimony of Fainall's adulterous relationship with Mrs Marwood (a queasy mix of beauty and jaundice from Eleanor David) is highlighted by the scenes of quiet, chastened intimacy between ex- lovers (expertly caught by Northam and Emma Piper) and the lively sparring of the main romantic pair.
Barbara Flynn is a delight as Millamant. A bubbling laugh forever threatening to spill on to even her solemn pronouncements, she has a wonderful way of lapsing into seductive romantic yearning only to snap out of it with a disconcerting click and revert to an amused level-headedness. Both aspects of her, Flynn demonstrates, are unfeigned. The performance is instinct with the flippant airiness of a woman who has depths, and it never coarsens into the roguish or arch.
The evening is enlivened by some vivid character acting, all the way from Tom Hollander's braying, epicene fop (Little Lord Fauntleroy slowly turning into Deanna Durbin) to Gary Olsen as his embarrassingly rustic half-brother up from the country who, with his uninhibited animal spirits, makes a far from Housmanesque Shropshire Lad. An excellent Sheila Hancock as a slightly out-to-luncheon Lady Wishfort suggests the pathos as well as the absurdity of this superannuated crone. Decaying and man-hungry, she looks as if a belated bite of male flesh would choke her to death.
'The Way of the World' continues until 21 November at the Lyric, Hammersmith (Box office: 081- 741 2311).
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