The National Theatre and Out of Joint’s co-production of Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ is running in repertoire with April De Angelis’s “A Laughing Matter”, both plays directed by Max Stafford-Clark and performed by the same cast.
The programme notes inform us that Oliver GoldSmith (1728 – 1774), had to rely upon the patronage of Dr Johnson to have his play ‘She Stoops To Conquer’ originally produced. For its day the play was considered controversial because it did away with sentimental comedy in which virtue always becomes its own reward. GoldSmith hated such ridiculous sentimentality and wrote his comedy to be funny, regardless of what was considered tasteful. He was not prepared to pander to the liking of conventional comical style. He wanted to be able to use vulgarity and sensuality, self-interest and human weaknesses to create rich laughing comedy, laughter for its own sake. It is for this reason that “She Stoops to Conquer” stands out as one of the few creative pieces of theatrical writing of the mid-eighteenth century.
She Stoops to Conquer tells the story of the Hardcastle family. Mr Hardcastle wishes his daughter Kate to marry his best friend’s son, the young Charles Marlow. Mrs Hardcastle for fiscal reasons intends for her son Tony Lumpkin to marry his niece Constance Neville. Tony Lumpkin is a coarse, low-life individual who wishes to cause others mischief to pass the time whilst he waits for his coming of age. The comedy begins when Tony Lumpkin deceives Marlowe into mistaking the Hardcastle house for an Inn and Mr Hardcastle for a common Innkeeper.
Owen Sharpe as Tony Lumpkin fails to make any lasting impression with his performance. One would think that Tony Lumpkin had been created by Goldsmith merely to help move the plot along and not as a pivotal character that defines his mode of comedy writing.. He does however possess a disarmingly cheeky grin that cannot fail to endear him to the audience.
Jane Wood as Mrs Hardcastle the old hag of a battle axe, blusters delightfully around the stage bemoaning her lot in life and coyly flatters her eyes when others heap exaggerated praise upon her ‘great beauty’ and ‘youth’ believing each fawning lie they tell. She has a wonderful scolding tone to her voice that causes others to rightfully cower in her presence.
Monica Dolan as Kate Hardcastle, the young woman who has to stoop to conquer by pretending to be a barmaid in order to win the heart of the young Charles Marlow, laughs and giggles with girlish charm. Her face expresses a whole host of comical gestures, whether tears, shock or outrage she is impishly able to express each with mock pretence.
However, it is Ian Redford as Mr Hardcastle who holds centre stage. He plays the character as a kind benevolent old man with an almost saintly patience who graciously accepts one insult after another to please his guests, until decency finally commands that he finally rebukes them. Even then his kindly nature shows through and his rebukes are harmlessly delivered.
The rich laughing comedy that Goldsmith wrote failed to rise more than a few titters and chortles this evening, although it contains some delightful parts that cheer.
Next review by Richard Mallette
If it’s possible to make the vast stage of the Lyttelton seem cramped, this production has done so. We’ve been moved to the sombre country home of Mr Hardcastle, and hard it is, with its low ceilings, darkly stained woods, uncomfortable furnishings, all of it a celebration of rustic charmlessness and threadbare, backwater living. The prodigious pleasure of Goldsmith’s classic lies in the clash of its distinctively English domains: town against country, refined taste against provincial simplicity, masters against servants. When two gentlemen come calling to the provinces in search of wives, the confusions arise almost predictably, as the fellows are tested, duped, and finally rewarded with love and wealth. This skilled production preserves all that’s theatrically reliable in the play and brings to it a wonderful generosity of spirit and traditional good fun. It doesn’t hurt that highly accomplished actors, directed with more than a little inventiveness, staff the production.
Max Stafford-Clark has decided to avoid unpleasant irony, now such a staple of the London stage and so tempting in a well-known play whose outmoded values the audience almost expect to see subverted in our putatively democratic age. But in this production the characters are only gently mocked; none is treated with contempt or the disagreeable aloofness that has become standard fare in the contemporary theatre. Part of this magnanimity derives from the casting. None of the actors is notable for a glamorous appearance, none chosen out of a misguided appeal to our tastes for the callow and beautiful. The young lovers seem neither especially young nor especially ardent. Instead we have expert actors who manipulate the play’s welter of accents and class discriminations. Christopher Staines’s young gentleman Marlow, for example, plays his part with gusto, making the shift from reserved and tongue-tied aristocrat in the presence of a woman of breeding, embodied in Monica Dolan’s wonderfully adaptable Kate Hardcastle, to the randy rake ready to take a tumble when she stoops to conquer as a serving girl. Our other romantic couple, played with appropriate restraint by Stephen Beresford and Fritha Goodey, must perforce absorb less of our attention, but they are delightfully sincere without simpering or foolishness. The most notable parts, as always, belong to the senior Hardcastles and Tony Lumpkin. Ian Redford excels as the old landowner, with his bellowing voice, his unthreatening bluster, his outrage at the presumptuous rudeness of his young urban guests. Jane Wood plays Mrs Hardcastle with great comic relish. The role can be easily caricatured as the source of what villainy, and even misogyny, the text has, but Wood’s timing and her willingness to play the part as a caterwauling good sport make the character rather endearing. And Mrs Hardcastle’s son Tony Lumpkin, one of English comedy’s great roles, manages to seem both loveable and charming. Owen Sharpe assumes an accent that out-rustics even those of the servants for its rude appeal. His physical grace and gamin sprightliness make him more of a Puckish spirit of good-natured mischief than a malevolent spoiler. Sharpe turns out to be the presiding genius of the production, for he plays Tony as a benevolent bumpkin, who manages through sheer backwardness to see to it that young love thrives and we all join in the final dance.
Stafford-Clark has decided to direct quite broadly, with an exaggeration not inappropriate to the play’s status as a compendium of comedic stage conventions. Hence we have disguises, overheard conversations, misdirected letters, knowing servants, misinterpreted comments, dialogue at cross-purposes, frustrated young love, bumbling parents, and endless confusions. The director plays down none of these stock situations or the play’s many comic clichés. Perhaps this is why he probably ought not to have put members of the audience on the stage in side boxes, as a kind of (stale) reminder of the theatricality of the action. Stafford-Clark accomplishes that feat well enough otherwise: the actors are told to speak their lines with unsubtle farcical emphasis, with sweeping gestures, and in voices directed outward to make the audience even in the caverns of the Lyttelton feel included in the frolic. It’s an astute effort, sophisticated enough not to feel smug, aware enough to realise that the audience want to enjoy themselves without feeling superior. Stafford-Clark has mounted a production to encourage laughter without malice, and without squint-eyed, postmodern detachment. In our cynical day that’s enough to make this production feel like refreshment and old-fashioned amusement. It makes one happy to go to the theatre.
What other critics had to say.....
CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "I'm sorry to report that Stafford-Clark's production of She Stoops to Conquer ...disappoints." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Simply funny and good-natured." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "A drab revival of a comic masterpiece." KATE BASSETT for THE INDEPENDENT says,"Peculiarly flat."
External links to full reviews from popular press