First performed in 1676, George Etherege's play 'The Man of Mode' is transposed to the London of the early 21st century in Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre production. Sedan chairs are replaced by taxis, and when we're first introduced to the main character - Dorimant - he's being photographed in the company of delectable nymphs in his clinically chic London pad by numerous paparazzi.
Dorimant is a wealthy, sex-hungry socialite who's basic 'job' is to get as many of London's upper class women into his bed as he possibly can. It's a time-consuming business, because it involves hatching complex plots to fend off one woman whilst trying to acquire the amorous affections of another. So as we join the drama, Dorimant, encouraged by his wealthy, charmless chums, is conniving to dump his current love - one Mrs Loveit - in order to seduce her friend, Belinda. But it's a tough life for an alpha male on the rampage - there always seems to be one more woman to have sex with. And it's not long before Dorimant's eyes fall on one Harriet Woodvill, though she proves to be something more of a challenge.
At first, it appears that it's Dorimant who is the 'Man of Mode'. However, after some time, we meet up with Sir Fopling Flutter, a fashion-conscious fool hot foot from Paris, who's absorbed all the affectations of Parisian culture, but still manages to come across as a gullible buffoon. He's roped in to Dorimant's plots in order to distract Mrs Loveit while Dorimant concentrates his affections on Belinda. And in a sub-plot, Dorimant's friend Bellair faces a dilemma when his father arranges a marriage for him – but not with the woman he loves.
Though Tom Hardy leads ably as the swaggeringly confident viper Dorimant, it's Rory Kinnear's brilliantly defined Sir Fopling that steals the show in almost every respect. Kinnear has a staggering range of gestures delivered with acute precision, and even manages to play the piano convincingly in a hilarious rendition of a tune he has supposedly composed. Kinnear reminds one of Edina from the hit TV show 'Absolutely Fabulous'. Now I'm not suggesting that Kinnear has 'borrowed' elements of the singularly quirky characterisation that Jennifer Saunders brought to the role of Ms Monsoon, but there are many recognisable similarities. For example, he's garishly dressed in an assortment of clothes ranging from sequin covered shoes, to a sparkling silver bomber jacket, and says with the utmost conviction: 'My clothes are my creatures'. And also like Edina, he's similarly addicted to champagne – complete with an amusingly idiosyncratic method for ordering it too. Nonetheless, it's an impressive performance which tells you from the start you're witnessing something special in the acting department.
Nancy Carrol also impressed in the role of the flame-haired (and flame dressed) Mrs Loveit, though her rage at being humiliated by Dorimant failed to reach the level of truly unrestrained fury which was more than amply justified by the circumstances.
Vicki Mortimer's modern set employs two revolving cubes to move between bars, Dorimant's house and Mrs Loveit's shop. It's a neat and impressive concept which aptly echoes the sterility of the activities on stage, whilst paying some homage to Etherege's times with the use of inset panelling. Impressive though the set is, it requires time to reset and the intervals are covered with suitably modernistic music and choreography which is generally engaging and entertaining. However, there were times when the scene changes seemed stretched, and they lengthened the overall running time of the piece quite considerably to just below 3 hours.
Disappointment will undoubtedly be writ large on the notes of those who were anticipating a faithfully historic rendition of this play. And it certainly felt as though something had been lost in the time travel from the London of the 1670s to that of the 2000s. Somewhat surprisingly, the language transposes reasonably well, though I suspect there have been some judicious adaptations to make it all work. Witty and amusing though it is, I'm really not all that interested in the excesses of those whose riches enable them to spend all their time in idle and/or futile pursuits. Call me puritanical if you will, but it's painfully depressing to see that what Etherege observed over 300 years ago is still in evidence in the dubious excesses of the glitterati today. It's even more depressing to see that those of us with more grounded and humdrum existences are still just as interested in them too!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Its comedy misses out on cut and thrust. Handsome Hardy makes Dorimant a cocky toyboy rather than a practised lecher.." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Rory Kinnear gives a star performance in a star role." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Superficially heartless comedy." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Hytner has created a coherent and persuasive modern equivalent of Restoration high society, and as a result the old comedy sparkles and shocks anew...this is a production that memorably captures both the laughter and the biting chill factor of Etherege's cruel comedy." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "An alarmingly cold, loveless play."
Production photo by Johan Persson