A bold and exhausting Sheridan

Deborah Warner's production at the Barbican is an all-embracing mix of Brecht and punk.

Gadzooks but this story of gossip and gagging orders sounds familiar! Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777) about bitching, subterfuge and the control of information among the beautiful people ("people will talk, there's no preventing it") is bang on the money.

Deborah Warner's production at the Barbican starts with some pumping electronic beats. The cast convenes on an informal catwalk in a Vivienne Westwood motley of 18th-century meets punk, which we might perhaps loosely call Barock. They hold Brechtian placards with character types scrawled on them ("libertine", "smooth-tongued hypocrite", "country coquette") and use their mobile phones to snap each other gurning with the audience in the background. The mood of narcissistic self-validation, Facebook-stylie is set.

Duly alienated, we watch the actors in their jocks and crinolines begin to don their hybrid costumes. We watch the action unfold on Jeremy Herbert's stage, where fakeries of all kinds are exposed: flats and backdrops are flimsy, and pasted with decoupage, or wallpaper with "blue wallpaper" written on the bottom.

The exposure of artifice does create a few challenges for the performers, who are adrift on a prairie of a stage. One must hike across the hinterland in order to grab the flowers and throw them down in a fit of pique. It's an Andean trek upstage to get to the screen and overturn it... you get the picture. The design is so intent on baring all that the exquisite claustrophobia of the Sheridan salon is all but lost. The very grammar of the doings of the idle rich depends upon being crated up like cattle together, immured in each other's drawing rooms, and climbing those walls with boredom. Here, surely, is where backbiting and snooping thrive.

Each scene change is a marvel of banners, projections, announcements -- even fireworks. There is plenty of highly affective loud music, like "Jai Ho", which was the Slumdog Millionaire theme, and "Chihuahua", which was not. But it's like a many-course meal where the appetisers and the rince-bouches totally overpower the main dishes and wreck the palate; subtler flavours are lost to us. It's a tough entr'acte to follow.

The electronic, digital overload makes the human voice seem comparatively frail, and the actors respond in curious ways to the stage that upstages, and the hi-energy, hi-concept interludes. Under pressure to large it up, at times their brief seems to have been to simply go crazy, and the result is some very strange shtick indeed. I will hurriedly gloss over the be-skirted bloke lurching around in the debauchery scenes, and the unfortunate cameo of Moses, pigeon-toed and pigeonholed as The Honest Jew. Charles, the good-hearted libertine, is played as a frazzled, addled addict: clearly an ill-matched Pete Doherty to the Waity Katy, composed heiress that is his beloved.

Some performers find a more comfortable accommodation with the Sheridan syntax: Alan Howard, as the elderly husband coping with the sex-and-shopping excesses of his younger wife and her "country ways" (all puns in Sheridan intended), transmits the mournful sing-song of a 1940s wireless broadcaster. As his blood rises, so does his pitch: it's the same cut-glass broadcaster, but commentating on a thrilling sporting event.

Warner's cheerfully anachronistic, mock-Georgian characters are a louche lot, who watch porn, snort coke and binge drink. Textual innuendo is fully outed, so thoughts of infidelity translate to actual heavy petting on the furniture. It's a show with plenty of grunt and real swagger, even if this is patchily achieved. We may be thankful for Warner's interpretative boldness, but when the final banner unfurls after three and a quarter hours, and reveals the words "it's finished, thank God," we can but say a quiet Amen to that.

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear