William Congreve’s The Way of the World, Royal National Theatre, London

One glance reveals that Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Congreve’s The Way of The World (October 1995–March 1996, Royal National Theatre, London) is far from a standard Restoration comedy. Gone are the usual trappings: no jeweled swords or extravagant periwigs here. The men stroll about in Edwardian coats and trousers, while the women are fantastically decked in flower-like, brightly colored tutus and silken capes. St. James’s Park becomes an abstract expressionist gallery, while the climax plays out in a trash-strewn alley.

Yet despite this abandonment of period, the production remains true to the spirit of the play: at issue is how men and women relate to each other, a problem which has changed surprisingly little since the time of William III. We can still recognize Lady Wishfort (Geraldine McEwan) in her desperation for a man and her fight against advancing age; Mrs. Fainall (Veronica Quilligan), at the mercy of her husband (Richard McCabe) in a man’s world; and Mirabell and Millamant (Roger Allam and Fiona Shaw), as they cautiously struggle to define their roles in a life together.

This delicate thrust is carried off by a generally excellent cast without sacrificing the humor of the play. While there is wit a-plenty, Congreve’s true genius lies in the absurd situations his characters build for themselves. McEwan makes a wonderfully over-the-top Lady Wishfort, affecting child-like attitudes as she plans each word and pose to catch her man. She and Sir Wilful Witwoud (Anthony O’Donnell) are responsible for most of the big laughs in the play.

At the story’s heart are those two aunt-crossed lovers, Millamant and Mirabell, whose performances are as quirky as the production itself. Allam drawls his speeches as though perpetually amused by the world around him, while Shaw sometimes seems to retrieve her lines by telepathy from another world. But somehow the two come together to produce genuinely powerful scenes. The long negotiation between them, set in the attic of Lady Wishfort’s mansion, is completely modern in its resonance. Millamant is the independent woman–by no coincidence, the only woman in trousers on the stage, with no elaborate coiffure but a plain and close-cut crop–and Mirabell is the (relatively) enlightened man. Together they hammer out an agreement of rights, duties, and responsibilities between wife and husband that has nothing to do with the laws of the time and everything to do with respect for each other. Millamant will not submit herself, even to the man she loves.

Perhaps this sort of table-turning comes easy for Shaw: in repertory she is currently playing the title role in Richard II. In any case, she carries it off well here, as the entire cast combines to provide both fine entertainment and a new take on a familiar classic.

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