Review - The Way of the World at the Donmar Warehouse
The Donmar Warehouse's artistic director Josie Rourke began her tenure at the helm there in 2012 with a candlelit production of George Farquhar's 1706 play The Recruiting Officer. Now the candles are back at the Donmar for another restoration classic The Way of the World that originally premiered in 1700 (though Rourke has been nowhere to be seen around the Donmar for most of the last year herself, and has recently announced that she's stepping down from the post; this production is being directed by James Macdonald).
It is part of a sudden rush of Restoration plays in theatreland that has also included a radically updated version of The Country Wife at Southwark Playhouse and the mostly forgotten The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich at Stratford-upon-Avon's Swan Theatre from the RSC.
This production is a treat - but it is a hard-earned one. Both the actors and the audience have their work cut out for them to make sense of it. It's a veritable feast of stylish actors and utterly sumptuous costumes - but golly, it's also hard to follow! A comedy of high society bad manners - and extravagant mannerisms - the convoluted machinations of marriage and inheritance are put under the spotlight, as a woman Millamant needs to get the blessing of her aunt Lady Wishfort to receive her full dowry when she marries Mirabell.
But there's an awful lot of subplots and detours before the inevitable happy resolution. It reminded me a bit of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (itself beautifully revived at the Donmar by Rourke in a production that subsequently transferred to Broadway) in the acts of bad faith and worse motives that happen along the way.
The social comedy is very keenly observed, and the great virtue of James Macdonald's production is that it doesn't send it up but treats these as real people with real problems. Yes, Haydn Gwynne's Lady Wishfort looks a bit panto dame-like, but she makes her overpowering sense of vanity also a mark of vulnerability.
And there's quietly stunning work from Geoffrey Streatfeild, one of our very best actors, as a warmly real Mirabell, and Justine Mitchell (recently seen in the West End in the transfer of the National's Beginning) as the stylish Millamant.
I have to admit that I didn't follow it all - but its best to simply sit back and just drink in the language, the performances, and the gorgeous parade of costumes they are dressed in by designer Anna Fleischle.