Magazine article The Spectator

Look and Learn

Magazine article The Spectator

Look and Learn

Article excerpt

School for Scandal

(Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford)

There's no problem about the topicality of The School for Scandal, with which the RSC opens its winter season at Stratford. You only have to play it straight to see that the problems people have in discovering the truth about each other never change. Sheridan's late-18th-century need to spring reality from Reputation, spin and scandal is ever with us. Tireless scourge of priggish rectitude, he's also a firm believer that wild oats are an indispensable ingredient in the life worth living.

As abductor of a ravishingly beautiful young girl, impetuous duellist, theatrical entrepreneur, dramatist and Member of Parliament, Sheridan endured more than his fair share of assassination. His genius lay in transporting his rumbustious adventuring into his plays, using the magic of theatre to ridicule his critics into irrelevance while not failing to address larger political issues. Garrick acutely noted The School for Scandal's capacity to produce not only `Bursts of Laughter but an uncommon Agitation of Spirit in the Audience'.

Declan Donnellan's production goes for it in period costume, resisting any temptation to dumb down arcane allusion or update the text. You could do your GCSE on this staging and sail through with flying colours - not that there's anything academic about Donnellan's approach. It's boisterously theatrical from start to finish, playing this up with the old strategem of showing a company `at rehearsal' on a bare, undressed stage, performing as much for each other as for anyone else.

Nick Ormerod's set is a theatre within a theatre, surrounding the acting space at the sides and back with flymen's galleries. These accommodate a handful of musicians to help the show along, also serving as vantage point for those actors not immediately involved but whom it's handy to have in view so that characters referred to in the dialogue can be quickly introduced to the audience. No one can do anything without being overlooked or overheard by a thousand eyes and ears. At stage left there's a prompt corner from which the action is observed by a dashing blond buck, identified in the programme as a supernumerary Prince of Wales and who's evidently on the best of terms with the actresses.

If there are stars in the cast - Kenneth Cranham as Teazle and Celia Imrie as Mrs Candour among them - there are no star performances, and indeed it's fair to construe that as a strength in what is a virtuoso ensemble production. …

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