When The Rivals
premiered in London on the 17th of January 1775, author Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s prologue to this tale of misconstrued love took the form of a conversation between a Sergeant-at-Law and an Attorney, appealing to the audience as ‘jury’ to give the play a fair trial. The audience was unimpressed and the production received a critical drubbing. Chastened, Sheridan whipped the play offstage for a hasty rewrite. He acknowledged the work’s lacklustre beginnings in a new prologue, and the re-jigged Rivals
re-opened on the 28th of January 1775 with the character of Julia apologizing on behalf of the author and promising the audience a newly invigorated play that would offer wisdom as well as humour. The gambit paid off: The Rivals
was such a resounding success that it enabled Sheridan to purchase the Drury Lane theatre with the proceeds.
Centuries pass, and in 2009, the Abbey Theatre decided to take their cue from Sheridan and rewrite the prologue as part of an effort to make this production of The Rivals
appeal to a modern Irish audience. This time, director Patrick Mason wields the editor’s shears, cutting Sheridan’s original prologue and pasting in an address to the contemporary audience that asks, “Another day, another play, another play, another day? Though set in the Georgian age, will it speak to a digital age? Can it hold the contemporary stage?” A resplendent Nick Dunning (who will later play the officious Sir Anthony Absolute) delivers this prologue, asking the audience to judge whether the play is still as entertaining today. (Although it does warn them not to strain their critical faculties too much: “Let’s resist the temptation to claim some kind of relevance”.) This tension – between a desire to make the production relevant to a contemporary audience but also to not belabour the modern parallels – runs throughout the production, occasionally feeling slightly manipulative.
The Abbey has been indulging a fondness for Restoration comedy in recent years – witness School for Scandal
in 2006 and The Recruiting Officer
in 2007. With a brave disregard for a global financial downturn, these productions have been sumptuous, coiffed and rouged confections, boasting large casts decked in full period regalia. With The Rivals
, a desire to expose the mechanics of staging weaves itself in amongst the wigs and powder. As the curtain rises, we are greeted by a stage decked variously with racks of costumes, dressing tables with their lightbulb-framed mirrors, and a sofa plonked unceremoniously in the middle of it all. The audience is treated to the backstage bustle as the actors prepare: adjusting wigs, doing vocal warm-ups (iPod earphones dangling) and chatting on their cell phones. The exposed brick of the stage walls makes for an eye-catching contrast with Joe Vanek’s jewel-bright period costumes.
Once the prologue has been dispensed with, the sighs and intrigues of two couples propel the plot forward. The petulant Miss Lydia Languish (Aoibheann O’Hara) pines for the handsome Ensign Beverly (Rory Nolan) who has stolen her heart and who, unbeknownst to her, is in fact Captain Jack Absolute in disguise. Her more sensible cousin Julia (Alison McKenna) speaks lovingly of her own suitor, Faulkland (Marty Rea) and his unfortunate romantic hypochondria (convincing himself of imagined faults and slights in their relationship). The course of romance is further disrupted by the interventions of other players, such as the foppish Bob Acres (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Lydia’s dowager aunt, Mrs Malaprop (Marion O’Dwyer), to whom the term “malapropism” owes its origins, for her hilariously unwitting assaults on the English language: “Sir, you overpower me with good breeding: you are the pineapple of politeness”.
Pugnacious and lusty, O’Trigger’s masculine prowess is enough to set the respective bosoms of Mrs Malaprop and her maid Lucy heaving.The Rivals
is a snapshot of its time, with casual misogynistic potshots – “I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny of learning: I don’t think so much learning becomes a young woman”. This is played straightforwardly for humour onstage, whilst a disclaimer for the more politically correct audience member is added in the programme with Ivana Bacik’s essay 'The Marriage Market', decrying the trade in women. Other tricky archaisms are dealt with less overtly, such as when Sheridan gives us the quintessential stage Irishman, Lucius O’Trigger (Phelim Drew). Pugnacious and lusty, O’Trigger’s masculine prowess is enough to set the respective bosoms of Mrs Malaprop and her maid Lucy heaving. Drew tones down the stage “Oirish”-ness of O’Trigger, choosing to mute the mannerisms like accent normally associated with such a role, suggesting that the Irish stage is uncertain how to deal with this dated self-portrait. However, for all this tension between the modern and the archaic, the production succeeds in mining Sheridan for his humour, thanks in no small part to an excellent ensemble. The two romantic male leads particularly impress - Rory Nolan excels as the dashing deceiver, Captain Absolute, with perfect poise and brilliantly timed quips; and Marty Rea manages to make the lacrimose Faulkland a comic delight of trembling lip. Sheridan would be proud.