I’ll admit I had no idea what to expect from the Royal Exchange’s latest production, The Country Wife; to my shame, I’d not even heard of its author, William Wycherley. Still, the press release mentioned the word “bawdy”, so I was straight in there with my RSVP, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Taking my seat, the first thing I notice is an outlandishly attired dandy checking his talcum-powdered face and wig in a mirror, beneath an impressive chandelier of antlers and surrounded by plush chaise longues and fancy side tables. This turns out to be Mr Horner, an incorrigible womaniser who, in order to kid his fellow men of society into letting him gain unrestrained access to their wives and sisters, pretends to be suffering permanent impotence following a recent trip to France. It takes no persuading Sir Jasper Fidget, who immediately grants him escort duties to his wife and daughter, though Mr Pinchwife (a sometimes quite menacing Nick Fletcher) is less convinced, having been out of town with his new spouse Margery and therefore missing out on “the news”. The country wife of the title, Margery (played appropriately at first ditzily and increasingly minxily by Amy Morgan) wants to be introduced to society, and her husband is soon mad with jealousy as he witnesses her head turned by the fripperies of London and the flatteries of Horner (Felix Scott, knowingly roguish).
Other romantic complications arise, leading to a number of farcical entrances and exits, often symbolised by the opening and closing of various gates located at the periphery of the round, plus of course the stage doors themselves. Best of all are the shenanigans between Mr Pinchwife’s sister, Mrs Alithea, and her betrothed, the Jedwardly coiffed Mr Sparkish (pictured with Pinchwife above), whose costumes are a wonderful sight to behold, and whose delivery, thanks to Oliver Gomm’s over-the-top performance, is brilliantly comedic and rakish. The play was written to cast light on the promiscuities of the higher classes at the time and the incestuous nature of Restoration theatre (Wycherley, I have learnt from the programme, shared a mistress with Charles II, on the throne at the time), and in-jokes about theatre-going show the writer satirising his own social circles (perhaps one reason why his theatrical career spanned a rather brief five years!).
The piece might date from 1675, but by playing up the script’s colourful language (words and phrases like “homaster” and “Lady Wife Fidget, he’s coming into you from the back way” had the place in sniggers, while I enjoyed the exclamation: “No need to be so smutty!”) and using contemporary music (an interpretation of Hendrix, for example) during set changes helps keep the whole thing light-hearted and accessible, so hats off to director Polly Findlay. The only couple of things that don’t translate so well are the jarring characters’ explanatory asides to the audience at the ends of scenes, and the rhyming couplets which close the final act also stick out somewhat – but I suppose that’s the style of the time, so no matter. All in all, it’s a very entertaining piece and I very much enjoyed being introduced to the work of a playwright so old yet so totally new to me.
The Country Wife continues until 20 October. See the Royal Exchange website for ticket details.
Photograph: Jonathan Keenan