Sex, money and idiots in power: Restoration comedy’s endless appeal

These late 17th-century plays with their sea of unfamiliar words can be daunting for actors. But this disillusioned world speaks to our own age of uncertainty

Its the most terrified Ive ever been on stage, Justine Mitchell says flatly. The Irish actor shudders at the thought of the elegant romcoms of the Restoration. She has triumphed over all kinds of dramatic challenges Russian epics, Trump-era satire but shes not alone in her uneasiness. Everyone I speak to admits to an apprehensive frisson in approaching plays from the foptastic, periwigalicious world of the late 17th century.

Restoration plays come from the reign of Charles II and his immediate successors (roughly 1660-1710). In the wrenching aftermath of Britains civil wars and of Londons great plague and fire, its a disillusioned world. The fundamentals of church and state seem up for grabs; London is greedily expanding; marriage is misery but strangers are dangers. Ever worry about getting paid, getting laid or finding love? Does social anxiety prickle your palms? Do you despair of a world slipping its moorings? Restoration drama may speak to you.

For actors, the challenge involves excavating what initially seems forbiddingly unfamiliar speech and behaviour. Restoration tragedy swirls classical severity with turbulent emotion. Most enduring is Thomas Otways Venice Preserved (1682), a tragedy of broken promises, public and private. In a crumbling Venice, the callous senate provokes conspiracy, and loyalties buckle under the strain.

Prasanna
Prasanna Puwanarajah. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Venice Preservedattracts devotees, including Harold Pinter, who once planned a production, and Prasanna Puwanarajah, who is directing it for the RSC. Puwanarajah (also an actor whose troubled charm ripples through Dr Foster and Mum) first encountered it when applying for a directing award. It had an acting folklore about it one of the key first plays written for a female performer as a tragic lead. Its a series of superb two-handed scenes, exhilarating, charged and wholly committed.

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Yet when he pitched the play, theatres were not queuing round the block, he says wryly. One response from a not insignificant person at a not insignificant theatre was, Ah, Venice Preserved. The directors graveyard. He giggles. I dont give a shit about that. I just want it to be an exciting, expressive thing to watch. Im only really interested in audiences.

Im an audience of one at an early rehearsal in the RSCs London studios. Its one of those intense two-handed scenes, with Jodie McNees tormented heroine begging her estranged father Les Dennis in uncharacteristically sombre casting to save her husbands life. The mood is thoughtful. Puwanarajah, dressed in inky tones but with a neon lick from his emerald socks, prises apart the rhetoric, suggests tiny movements, shares family stories and ideas about PTSD. McNee looks pale as the grave, hoop earrings shivering with emphasis. Theres loads going on, isnt there? she says.

Like all great plays, its never not in season, Puwanarajah says over coffee after rehearsal. Since I started working on it, eight years ago, the world has arrived at the play which is about dangerous idiots in power. Politically, Otways murky noir seems disenchanted neither the conspirators nor their aristocratic targets emerge with credibility. It is much closer to Scorsese all the cops are robbers, and all the robbers are cops. Otways not as interested in those elements as he is in the people. Venice Preserved is a thriller set in a political dimension, but hes writing about abandonment, poverty, the safety of a near-miraculous relationship and how fundamentally brittle and frail that is in a dangerous world.

Justine
Justine Mitchell and Nicholas Le Prevost in Love for Love in 2015 at the Swan theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

As a child of the 1980s, Puwanarajah will draw on the culture that shaped him. When I started directing, all of my cultural references were cartoons that I watched as a kid. Then I realised that this play reminded me of the arch clarity of those experiences people under profound duress, sensing their decline being charted by the decline of a city or state, and feeling they need to intervene. Either thats romanticism or its DC Comics. The result, he says, is what might happen if Blade Runner was set in Venice. You move into the future, then freeze-frame that for 50 years and let everything get old and shit. He and his cast find it oddly clear, he says. Its not that the play is hard, its that the humans are hard complicated and real.

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If Otways tragic language lands with emotive force, the giddy wits of Restoration comedies are all feint and parry. These social plays run on adulteries and marriage contracts, on booze, banter and the bottom line, and actors must master speech that bristles with self-awareness. Its language weaponised, argues Justine Mitchell, wicked linguistic predation. The characters live in the language, they are defined by what they say language is their armour.

All they have is what they wear and what they say, agrees her fellow actor Fisayo Akinade. They appeared together in the Donmars thrillingly serious production of William Congreves The Way in the World (1700) last year; Mitchell previously starred in Love for Love (1695), also by Congreve, at the RSC. Congreves speeches sting and swivel unpredictably. Its a sea of words, complains Akinade, I found it incredibly hard to learn.

Fisayo
A sea of words Fisayo Akinade, Christian Patterson and Simon Manyonda in The Way of the World at the Donmar, directed by James Macdonald. Photograph: Johan Persson

Mitchell recalls a helpful note from James Macdonald, their director at the Donmar: Impress each other. These characters try to dazzle whenever they speak. Congreves so funny, Mitchell insists. And he knew that women could be funny and then everyone forgot. The Restoration saw Britains first-ever professional actresses, and both Otway and Congreve helped them shine. As Millamant, the vigilant heiress in The Way of the World, Mitchell said she could only let her guard drop for a couple of seconds. The characters are trapped inside these versions theyve created for themselves. Akinade, who played the deliciously daft fop Witwoud, agrees: Everyone is playing a role the entire time. What are they like when they arent being observed? When the fop is at home and takes his coat off, what is he doing? Probably he just cried. They must have been exhausted.

Easing the actors on to Planet Congreve was movement director Francine Watson Coleman. This is a different socially structured world, where the body is more a mark of fashion, she says. She helps actors cross a bridge to another culture. This is a presentational world they all intend to be looked at and are all looking at each other. It could be cruel its not a pretty world, though it can seem glamorous.

In physical terms, Coleman explains, people have more turnout, an elegant, forward walk. Gestures are more fluid and open. Its a physical repartee as well as a verbal one. Take that archetypal Restoration prop, the fan perfect for dissimulation. Coleman, en route to rehearsal, naturally has one in her bag, and its mischievous shuttle punctuates our conversation. Once I have this in my hand, it gives an extra dimension to what I might want to do, she says. As a lady, its a liberation of a certain kind, a way to have my own opinions locked in physically to a life where I cannot otherwise be at liberty. She goes further: This is the first feminist object.

How does it feel to inhabit those characters on stage? They are so used to talking at a pace, with a billion balls in the air, Akinade marvels. It does take time to get there but when you do its just the most exciting, hilarious thing imaginable. Theres a giddy tickle, youre on the verge of laughing all the time. Mitchell smiles wistfully: I wish I could say the same. I would not run towards another Restoration comedy. Even Akinade admits, I wouldnt want to do one again.

Simon
Simon Chandler and Jenny Rainsford in The Double Dealer, directed by Selina Cadell at the Orange Tree theatre. Photograph: Robert Day

Selina Cadell would disagree. Herself a trenchant actor, performance is her way into Restoration comedy. When I was at drama school, I thought it was ghastly, she confides, but its the most incredible vehicle. One of very few directors to have staged all of Congreves great comedies (including the RSCs Love for Love and The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree), she declares, Its extraordinary how dextrous his language is, its stunning like music.

There was no hiding from the audience in well-lit Restoration theatres (some lucky bucks would sit on the stage), and Cadells productions embrace that theatrical charge. The language demands the intimacy of talking to the audience its like lighting a firework. Yet these texts do intimidate actors how does Cadell calm their jitters? When we first meet I ask, How do you feel about talking to the audience? Then its all in the language. Youre inviting the audience in. We take the cork out of the bottle and you get champagne. As Mitchell recalls, You conspire with the audience, and its delicious. People would talk back to us at the RSC.

Restoration plays rear their periwigged heads every decade or so. They spoke to 1960s sexual freedoms and 1980s materialism, and offer a hand to our own age of uncertainty. But in performance their energy comes from the spark between everyone in the space, actors and spectators alike. I want the audience to understand their involvement from the word go, Cadell confirms, theyre not behind a fourth wall. What matters is what happens in the room. It changes every night sometimes its a riot.

Original Article : HERE ; The Ultimate Survival Food: The Lost Ways

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