Susannah Fielding as Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Shakespeare, whose plays were written more than half a century before The Country Wife, is timeless. Wycherley is not. You can very successfully set Shakespeare in any period or place, as directors routinely do, and the material will always be topical.
But The Country Wife is a very different sort of piece, Dating from 1675 it relates entirely to the hedonistic reign of Charles II which followed eleven years of Puritan republicanism including the closure of theatres. Like dozens of other “Restoration Comedies” it is, in every sense, a period piece. It is absolutely of its time. Setting it in 2018 as Jonathan Munby does is theatrically disastrous.
Horner, who pretends to be impotent after catching “the clap” in France (Lex Shrapnel does his best with the role) so that he can seduce more women whose husbands will now trust him doesn’t work out of context. Modern women, even in this age of grooming, internet dating, Weinstein and the rest, are not controlled by their husbands. Most make free sexual choices and decisions for themselves. And the disco lighting, dances and bits of set (drinks cabinets, a burger barrow, a leather sofa et al) which whizz on and off are just wearily gimmicky, like the song which apropos of nothing in particular opens Act 2 although the fight which takes place in a kitchen with kitchen implements such as a hand held electric food mixer is amusing.
Oh yes, the humour. If you rip this play, probably the finest Restoration Comedy of them all, untimely from its creator’s context then it ceases to be more than mildly witty – occasionally. Done properly (the version Jonathan Kent directed at Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2007, for example) it is roll-in-the-aisles funny. And presumably Munby doesn’t like the famous china scene, which, laden with doubles entendres, should be a high spot of hilarity. It’s so woefully underplayed here that it passes almost unnoticed. There are problems with the language too. If a character in a raucously 2018 setting says “You intend to be honest?” or “She has gone abroad” it means something completely different from what Wycherley actually meant. (Honest meant chaste in the 17th century and abroad meant outdoors) so even the story telling suffers.
Of course – this is Chichester Festival Theatre after all – there is some good casting and commendable acting lurking in this tortuous, ill-judged distortion of a fine play. Susannah Fielding, dressed mostly in yellow, with a wheely suitcase to match, as the titular young wife brought to London from the country finds a compelling blend of innocence and guile in Marjorie. John Hodgkinson is twice her size as Pinchwife and is often – refreshingly – quite sinister rather than merely laughable in his fulminations. Scott Karim is fun too as a very camp Sparkish with an affected manner and nicely managed vocal tics.
This disappointing production, despite high-speed dialogue delivery and slick scene changes runs nearly three hours. Sadly, it seems a lot longer.
Lex Shrapnel as Horner and members of the company in The Country Wife at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan