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.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge