School for Scandal

Barbican Theatre, 14 June 2011

There isn’t much left to write about the Deborah Warner directed School for Scandal currently playing at the Barbican. An award-winning director who was most recently seen at the National with a stellar production of Mother Courage and Her Children, Warner’s original take on Sheridan’s 18th century classic became the rather surprising subject of unusually intense critical debate, before descending into a rather indecorous war of words between Warner and the theatre critics, Michael Billington and Charles Spencer.

The production demonstrates fairly conclusively that Sheridan’s restoration comedy continues to withstand the test of time. A sparklingly witty acidic comedy, the dense wordplay maybe be occasionally hard to follow for modern audiences but taking the time to really listen is more than worthwhile, with a script packed with lines biting enough to make you think of an 18th century Thick of It. The cast do fine work with the material. Alan Howard as Sir Peter Teazle is first rate, finding the perfect blend of genuine compassion mixed with the kind of grumpiness evident in older men who find themselves in a fractious relationship with a younger wife. It is interesting to watch Howard and remember back to a time in the 1970’s when he was one of the coming men of the stage, running through the repertoire of romantic leads for the RSC. Matilda Ziegler’s Lady Sneerwell and Vicki Pepperdine as the irrepressible Mrs Candour are both excellent and wring the maximum amount of humour out of two of the funniest roles in the play.

Leo Bill, playing Charles Surface as a trustifarian with a, very deeply hidden, moral centre, is entirely convincing. A bundle of nervous energy, constantly on the move, Bill injects some much needed pace into a play that, while constantly zipping along and never feeling flabby, is still a three hour haul.

However fans of Sheridan maybe scratching their heads at the description of Charles Surface as a trustifarian and this is where problems in the production begin to arise. The criticisms of Warner’s production have focused on the modern flourishes that have been brought to the play and a certain irritation that parallels with society today were being, in some cases literally, clearly signposted for the audience.

I have no problem with the ideas that plays can, and should, be updated. Whilst it would be nice to see a period version of School for Scandal, there is a clear argument, given our fixation with gossip and the current debate over injunctions, that the subject matter is still relevant and perfectly possible to update to a 21st century setting. However the central flaw appears to be that Warner never really makes clear what it was she wants to achieve, it is played broadly straight as a restoration comedy but every now and again the modern world intervenes; in the first scene Lady Sneerwell is on a stepladder but not for any evident purpose and when Snake snorts coke or a mobile phone is produced, it is all done with such a flourish you might as well put up a flashing neon sign marked ‘Do you see the parallels?’ for the benefit of the audience. The old maxim traditionally applied to writing is also applicable here – the audience needs to be shown not told.

Charles Surface is the only character that feels truly integrated with the directorial style, elsewhere the modern world only intrudes on the fringes; the scene changes are accompanied by a pounding hybrid of classical and dance and there is a lot of signposting of scene locations and selected quotes. The Brechtian feel to proceedings is enhanced by stripping the stage back to the bones and laying bare the mechanics of the action. However I am undecided whether this is supposed to be meant as a further reflection on the masks and layers of deceit that the characters wrap around themselves

School for Scandal is such a fabulous play that, if well acted, you are guaranteed an enjoyable night out. It is good to see one of Britain’s greatest comedies get an airing with a strong cast in a major revival and for those reasons it is worth recommending. However it is disappointing that this is one of those rare occasions where Deborah Warner’s original approach to classical drama has actually lessened the impact of the play.

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