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.