Women guide the plot - The Rivals REVIEW

The Rivals was first performed in 1775 so the play is almost as old as Bristol Old Vic (then known as The Theatre Royal and built 1764-6). As such, the play fits perfectly with BOV’s year long 250th anniversary celebrations which, as the programme notes, is ‘a journey through the centuries in which BOV has been alive’.

The play starts with a behind-the-scenes look at the actors preparing for the play to start. The immediate visual emphasis on costume and dressing up points to one of the major themes: disguise and deception.

Lydia Languish (Lucy Briggs-Owen), a dreamer, lives in a fantasy world of romance. Her ideas of love are gleaned from sentimental C18th novels and this has fixated her on the idea of marrying a poor man living in ‘blissful poverty’. Lydia is in love with a lowly ensign, Beverley. If she marries without the permission of her aunt, Mrs Malaprop, she will lose two-thirds of her fortune. In reality, Beverley is Captain Jack Absolute. He knows that if he tells Lydia the truth about his own fortune, she will lose interest. Lucy Briggs-Owen is great fun playing Lydia with an Essex accent in the style of a modern stereotype of vacuous reality tv stars (think TOWIE). The audience meet her pitch-perfect pouts and pleas to “Shu’ up!” with delighted recognition. Julie Legrand as Mrs Malaprop is magnificent in this linchpin role. Desmond Barrit is patrician in his portrayal of Sir Anthony Absolute. The supporting cast provide convincing English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh characters - each building the comedy.

The play is set in Bath, which in the C18th was a virtually purpose built luxury holiday resort - like Champneys but with wigs. The characters in the play, like typical leisure-seekers then, use the city to strut their stuff - to see and be seen. Appearance is all important in this marriage market town. An empty mirror positioned downstage right draws attention to the pervasive self-regarding vanity. Scenes are framed with gilt picture frames and contemporary scenic backdrops provide the structure of a set designed to emphasise the artifice of the lives portrayed. Characters wear extravagant costumes: enormous wigs and dresses capture the overblown excesses of the time.

These are not relationships confined to the 18th century: the gender politics are recognisable but with powdery wigs and pistols at dawn. The men and women interact much as they would today. For example, Julia’s relationship with Faulkland has a universal feel. He is neurotic and continually tests her love. For the women in the play, compromise is needed to maintain a relationship. Has this changed substantially today?

Repression of women is a theme. Mrs Malaprop chides her niece, ‘Thought does not become a young woman.’ In this world women are merely adornments and baubles, ready to be transacted in marriage contracts. Sir Anthony Absolute bemoans the fact that Lydia can read and regards the circulating libraries as ‘an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge.’ According to A N Kaul, ‘Sheridan is concerned with nothing less than the problem of a woman’s freedom in a society which looks upon women as property and marriage as a business transaction.’ In an era where women were discouraged from reading, Lydia’s reading becomes an act of subversion, even if it is the C18th equivalent of chick lit.

Towards the end of the play, it is triumphantly acknowledged that ‘women guide the plot’. In an age where women were repressed, considered not worthy of educating, the women here finally make choices, although these involve compromise.

Sheridan’s witty writing stands the test of time and the issues still ripple despite the centuries. A hugely enjoyable production which engages and, at times, enrages the audience.

(c) Samantha Coughlan September 2016

15th September 2016

Bristol Old Vic
King Street


9th Sept - 1st Oct 2016

Desmond Barrit - Sir Anthony Absolute
Nicholas Bishop - Falkland
Lucy Briggs-Owen - Lydia Languish
Lily Donovan - Lucy
Keith Dunphy - Sir Lucius O’Trigger
Henry Everett - David and Coachman
Jessica Hardwick - Julia Melville
Julie Legrand - Mrs Malaprop
Lee Mengo - Bob Acres
Shaun Miller - Fag
Rhys Rusbatch - Captain Jack Absolute

Dominic Hill - Director
Tom Rogers - Designer
Howard Hudson - Lighting Designer
Dan Jones - Original Music
Ed Madden - Assistant Director
Jonathan Howell - Fight and Movement
Maggie Lunn - Casting Director
Jennie Falconer - Costume Supervisor
Louise Nipper - Deputy Costume Supervisor
Emma Cains - Wardrobe Manager
Sophia Khan - Wigs Manager
Nic Prior - Production Manager
Louise Matthews - Interim Company Manager
Ian Slater - Stage Manager
Bryony Rutter - Deputy Stage Manager
Fiona Findlater - Assistant Stage Manager
Sophie Keers - Stage Management Work Placement
James Harrison - Lighting Operator
Ian Penrose - Sound Operator
Callum Harris - Stage Technician
Andrew Tinklin - Flys
Charlie Parker - Producer

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