Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Country Wife should stay in the country

I very rarely walk out of anything. I once ran out of Paradise Lost, but it was am-dram and my laughter was probably disturbing the actors, what with all the echoes in the apse and all. This failure to rush to judgment was corrected this week with a rush to the exit during The Country Wife, William Wycherley's almost entirely laugh-free comedy at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

You really have to hope that the pun was an invention of the Restoration (hardly going to be Cromwellian, really) since this 1675 play dependes so heavily on it. Not a line goes by but there's some saucy pun, a frequency surely only justified by punning being an innovation. Sadly, this is not the case and puns which must have seemed dated by James II are positively fossilised by now.

The other aspect of this bludgeoning - this is humour as a blunt object, not a thin blade - is that Wycherley thinks that wit is saying the opposite of what you mean. How cunning it is to have a character say one thing and mean another! The audience was underwhelmed by this strategy; I was practically in a comedy coma.

The plot is itself not wholly unpromising. There must be some mileage in having a lothario pretend to be a eunuch, although when played with the sort of desperate sexual abandon and innuendo of Toby Stephens as Horner it loses all point. Who would trust his wife to a man with a perpetual verbal hard-on? He is so sleazy that you could hear Hugh Hefner saying he'd gone too far.

There is a strong misogynist element to the treatment of Pinchwife's new bride, whom Horner is trying to seduce - Pinchwife constantly threatens his wife with violence, then locks her up, always manhandling her. While we are meant to find David Haig's hammy rage hilarious, this strand is much darker than director Jonathan Kent appears to believe. Any subversion inherent in the text is lost, or if none is intended, it is an interpretative opportunity lost.

Wycherley's text seems beyond redemption for today's world. Every other sentence, one of the witty rakes who are our heroes will remark that he is "off to the play", for that is where the true wits can be found and where the true brilliance of the intellect of the age can be found. This was surely true under the Restoration, recovering from the Puritans, but it makes such grand claims for the theatre that they are doomed to fail today - it simply isn't the centre of the intellectual world any more. There is no theatre which can live up to Wycherley's text, and no stage which deserves it either.

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