Review: The School for Wives

His penetrating gaze, associated with lines such as “a clever wife’s a bad investment”, resonated with a familiarity that drew attention to the degenerative ‘lad culture’.

The School for Wives is a play that reeks with mockery. Molière involves his contemporary audience as an accomplice to the ridicule of Arnolphe’s self-imposed deterioration, unable to deny the compulsion to laugh, whilst being consistently reminded of the unnerving relevance within their own society. Does this duplicity of ridicule belong solely to the seventeenth century context or can a modern audience also engage with the intrinsically condemning humour? Last night I viewed a production at the Drama Barn that wholeheartedly proves we can.

Having first seen The School for Wives in a more traditional location- the richly adorned, sprawling theatre of the Comédie-Française, Paris- I was sceptical of how this play could be confined to the notably small Drama Barn. This apprehension was soon kicked, slapped and spun violently out of place by Jack Gates’ portrayal of Arnolphe. He traversed the stage with convulsive flamboyance; the intimate, sparse set providing a restriction that augmented his expansive agitation. The tall, black bars of Agnes’ (Emma Ralph) balcony also exaggerated a sense of confinement and, aligned with the house’s bastille nature, the cage-like setting appeared suitably imposing.

The intimacy of the set also complimented the play’s satirical nature. Venetia Cook’s direction revoked any comforting notion of distance from the action as Arnolphe and Chrysdale (Gavin Pattison) reached aggressively into the crowd, their taunts disrupting the sanctuary of anonymity as individuals amongst us were affiliated with the mockery of their companions. The confrontational assertion of cuckoldry within 21st century ranks was amusing but superseded by a disarming and unsettling notion. Considering this play was written over 350 years ago, why does the misogynistic attitude presented by Arnolphe sound so familiar? His penetrating gaze, associated with lines such as “a clever wife’s a bad investment”, resonated with a familiarity that drew attention to the degenerative ‘lad culture’ that has infiltrated our own society. By using the play’s ridiculing nature to create a sinister reminder of a prevalent contemporary issue, Cook ensures the play’s original mélange of entertainment and criticism was suitably fulfilled within a modern environment.

It is essential that even the more moderate characters maintain dependable energy to support Arnolphe’s incessant dynamism.

There were, within Cook’s cast, individual performances that must be commended but the success of farce tends to rely particularly upon cohesive unity. In order to maintain the rapid pace and extreme animation that drives the play, it is essential that even the more moderate characters maintain dependable energy to support Arnolphe’s incessant dynamism. This production reveals a cast that is invariably responsive, providing Jack Gates with the resources necessary to present the most engaging and undeniably funny Arnolphe that I have seen on stage. Gates’ Arnolphe was reminiscent of Basil Fawlty in his jerking, nervous movements. His brimming anxiety occasionally erupted with hilarious results and any potential for catharsis was expunged by the immediate return of his overwrought behaviour.

Emma Ralph’s representation of Agnes was exceptional. Her progression from a doll-like, vapid girl to a bold and autonomous woman built gradually throughout and, of all the cast members, she revealed the most confident ability to play the pauses. She did not oversimplify the character by attempting to convey mature fondness for Horace (Bertie Wnek) and the childlike relationship that emerged from her enforced innocence was therefore credible. Other notable performances include the servants Alain and Georgette (Matthew Edwards and Sarah Warham). Their bold physicality allowed a humorous amalgamation of subservience, ridicule and companionship that established a strong relationship with the audience. Despite being marginalised by their master’s overwhelming presence, they often stole our attention, and exaggerated the comedy of the scene in doing so. During Agnes’ and her father’s reunion, for example, their pathetic sobbing had the audience in stitches and created a hilarious backdrop to the final scene.

School for Wives is showing 7-9th November 7:30pm at the Drama Barn and is a production that respects its role, not only to amuse the audience, but challenge us too. I can assure you this brilliant cast will have you laughing throughout but prepare for provocation. Venetia Cook plants an unsettling notion in our heads as we witness a raucous, volatile and supposedly estranged community and yet cannot deny former acquaintance with an attitude that should have faded long ago.

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