Sheridan the Love: New Theatre’s The School for Scandal
The School for Scandal (1777) is widely considered to be Richard Sheridan’s foremost comic masterpiece. A scathing social farce, Sheridan placed the high society of his time under the microscope, and, tellingly, not much has changed in over two hundred years. The people who populate his world are shown to have too much money and too much time on their hands. They spend their days engaged in idle gossip, spreading rumours, enjoying excess and acquiring needless possessions. It only takes a small push from director David Burrowes to shift this piece from the late Georgian period into our own times without losing any relevance.
Like all good farces, the plot is a little tangled, but for first time players: Charles and Joseph Surface are brothers with designs on the same girl, Maria. Of the two, Maria is partial to Charles. However, Lady Sneerwell wants Charles for herself, and so to damage his reputation she employs one Mr Snake to spread rumours about his character. Joseph, wanting the dowry that goes with Maria’s hand, is more than willing to play along with this. Meanwhile, the brother’s rich, long lost uncle Oliver has returned from the East Indies and is eager to test the pair’s moral fibre to see if they are worthy of inheriting his substantial fortune. Comedy ensues.
Although there have been a few updates to the setting, the play is still more or less as Sheridan wrote it. And therein lays the challenge. This is not a contemporary comedy, but Sheridan’s witty and elegant turn of phrase demands a lot from its actors and on this occasion the New Theatre has missed the mark. At three hours long (including intermission) the piece is something of a slog. No doubt the cast is aware of this fact and one gets the sense that an effort has been made to compensate. The result of course is that the actors are stretching for a gag – they rarely land satisfactorily. You can see they’re trying, but performances are over-conscious and the comedy doesn’t stick.
Whilst some are at more fault than others, there are still a number of fine performances. The brothers Charles and Joseph, Rhys Keir and Jacob Warner respectively, were well cast. Out of the pair, Warner was the less confident, consequently prone to hammy acting, but for the larger part the two played agreeably. Richard Cotter, as their long lost uncle, produced the most rounded performance (as much as is possible with a restoration comedy), finding space to have fun with his character without leaning on gimmick. Marty O’Neill as Sir Peter, the hapless elder gent who made the mistake of marrying a young and pretty but spendthrift wife, should be similarly complimented.
Burrowes and Isabella Andronos’ vision for the set is not without merit. The pair has constructed a false proscenium stage that opens up into a stake white box set. The design looks bold on the New Theatre stage, and for the most part it works, even if some more deliberate prop choice would have made it pop more (but hey, on a budget it ain’t half bad). The real issue with this piece, though, comes from uneasiness with the dialogue and a lack of confidence in performance (stumbling over lines is still a problem at this (early) point in the run). With any luck the play will only get stronger as it continues, but at three hours you’ll have to really to want to see this one to make the trek out to the Newtown.
The School for Scandal is playing with the New Theatre until the 30th of May. For more information see: http://newtheatre.org.au/the-school-for-scandal/