Broadcasting to the world that you're impotent might not seem the most appropriate way to get the opposite sex into bed, but that's how William Wycherley decided to open his bawdy tale about the adventures of a group of male sexual predators.
Wycherley was a chum of Charles II who became King after the monarchy was restored in 1660 - hence the categorisation of this piece as a 'restoration comedy'. Apparently Wycherley was such good pals with Charles II that they even obligingly shared mistresses. Maybe that was how the playwright came to write this piece, which has had a rather chequered career in stage history terms at least. Even in the sexually carefree times of the post-puritan restoration - where almost anything was acceptable in the new-found thrill of social freedom - Wycherley's play caused quite a stir when it was first performed in 1675, and afterwards languished more or less in obscurity until the dawn of the twentieth century.
'The Country Wife' is the first in a season of productions to be performed by the newly established Haymarket Theatre Company, which proposes to undertake a season of plays at the theatre each year under the supervision of different artistic directors. Jonathan Kent is at the helm for this inaugural season which continues in the New Year with another comedy and a new musical by Michel Legrand.
For the opening play in this season, Kent has rounded up a veritable treasure trove of actors to kick-start this new venture. And they don't let him down, even though a sound glitch kept a somewhat impatient audience waiting for some 20 minutes or so for the show to start.
Toby Stephens takes the lead as Horner, a man with a seemingly insatiable sexual appetite, and a penchant for seducing other men's wives. In order to boost his chances with the female population, Horner spreads a rumour that he is impotent. Odd though this tactic might seem, it appeals to London's well-to-do business types because they now feel that they can let Horner entertain their wives without them being 'cuckolded'. Horner's trick works, and he's soon amidst a gaggle of ladies who are begging for his 'attention'.
In another strand to the story Pinchwife, one of Horner's friends, has settled down and married a country woman, and is anxious to keep her away from Horner's attention and the other rakes of the city. Though Pinchwife tries to keep his young bride Margery under lock and key at home, she's keen to see plays and to meet actor types. Rather predictably, it's not long before Margery Pinchwife meets Horner with inevitable consequences.
As a northerner, I'm often rather dissatisfied by southern actors' attempts at northern accents. And it was a night for more disappointment as Fiona Glascott gave us her rendition. Still, it didn't grate too much and she made up for it with an exuberant and somewhat off-beat characterisation of Margery Pinchwife. Sometimes she seemed like a sulking child, and at others more like a scheming dominatrix. Her bedroom is full of dolls and she plays with puppets and her pet white rabbit languishes in a cage in her gaudy pink bedroom.
Toby Stevens is charmingly ingeniously as the lecherous Horner, and Jo Stone-Fewings made a highly convincing impression as the buffoon-like Sparkish who seems to need everything spelt out in words of one syllable to know what's going on. David Haig plays Pinchwife with the desperate frustration of one who knows he's fighting a losing battle, and Janet Brown – better known to many as an impressionist – turns up as the doddery Lady Squeamish. Overall, it's a fine cast in commendable form.
Jonathan Kent's direction focuses on the bawdy nature of the material. There's nothing very subtle about Kent's revival, but then such is the nature of the piece. However, the design is a kind of synthesis of old and new. The women wear elegant costumes which reflect the period nature of the piece, as does the cut of the men's coats. But we see a 20th century pool table, an advert for a modern larger and the rakes wear jeans. I can see the implications of combining the modern with the historic, but it seemed a little odd.
I suppose what really matters about this play is the way in which you interpret it. Academics don't seem much help in this department as there's little agreement among the dons as to what the play is really all about. Indeed, even in the past 50 years or so, several competing interpretations have been put forth and have then lost favour. Some people see it as a satirical play, while others are simply outraged by the overt sexual nature of it.
Viewed from a historical perspective, 'The Country Wife' is interesting and intriguing because it shows the kind of play Londoners were going to see once the Puritans' stage ban was lifted after the restoration. And as a comedy it has merits too because it's a cleverly written farce with some witty lines of dialogue. But there's also much to deplore in the play too. The description of women is derogatory to say the least and thus somewhat disturbing and uncomfortable. No doubt there will be those who will see the play as being anti-feminist if not politically incorrect. At the same time, the men are also shown in rather a bad light – either as fools or sexual menaces. Even though there's a glimmer of hope for humanity in the love that blossoms between the sensible Alithea and charming Harcourt, I suspect that this play will continue to divide audiences just as it has done for most of its existence.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Kent's production made me laugh a lot but it needs more comic invention to work." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, " Tremendously enjoyable...The revival has a huge and infectious confidence and is often delightfully inventive." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "An unsubtle, broad-bottomed affair: more crowd-pleasing bawdy romp than dissection of a corrupt society." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Cracking revival...Shows don’t come much more disgracefully pleasurable than this." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "In short, wasn’t the fun a bit forced?"