Sunday, January 31, 2010


Leah Russo, center, as Berinthia, with the cast.
Photo: Gene Witkowski

You don’t get much Restoration Comedy these days.

When was the last time the Stratford Shakespeare Festival or The Canadian Stage Company produced a play by Congreve or a Wycherley? Use the fingers on both hands and look to your toes.

Soulpepper Theatre Company did stage Congreve’s The Way of the World in 2008 but they dropped any notion of maintaining the play’s cultural and linguistic milieu and went for an Ontario-accented comedy. It got us through the text but not without pain.

If you can’t get Restoration Comedy at home the only alternative is to go looking for it abroad. In this case I did not have to go much further than Buffalo, New York where the Irish Classical Stage Company has staged The Relapse by Sir John Vanbrugh.

The ICTC has been around since 1990 and puts on six productions a year. The plays seem well-chosen and broad-ranging. The list of productions over the years shows works by Moliere, O’Neill, Coward, Shaw, Wilde, Pinter, Sheridan and many others. Indeed an eclectic mix of plays.

The productions are put on at the Andrew Theatre in downtown Buffalo. It is an attractive theatre-in-the-round that holds 200 people.

The Relapse is a classic Restoration Comedy and was first produced in 1697. It is set against the rigid class structure of English society and the pursuit of money, marriage, sex and social status.

Sir Novelty Fashion purchased a peerage and now wants to marry the rich but déclassé Miss Hoyden. She is the daughter of the aptly named country bumpkin Sir Tunbelly Clumsey. The penniless brother, Young Fashion, will attempt to marry Miss Hoyden by pretending to be Sir Novelty.

Loveless, the happily married former rake goes to London with his lovely wife Amanda but becomes seriously attracted to her even lovelier cousin, the young widow Beritnthia. Add a matchmaker called Coupler, a chaplain and a few other worthies and you have a play of wit, high and low manners and ornate language that can be a delight to see.

Director Derek Campbell has decided to eschew the 17th century setting of the play with its fancy costumes, wigs, swords and manners and sets the play in the mid-1960’s. Vanbrugh wrote much of the play in verse and in the precise and brittle style of Restoration Comedy. By bringing the play into the 20th century, the Restoration set, costumes and paraphernalia are exchanged for modern dress, a few couches and coffee tables. Old wine can perhaps be put in a new bottle without changing the quality of its taste or the nuance of its aroma. Can you do the same with an old play?

We are in 20th century England listening to Restoration English, pronounced with an American accent producing tortured English accents and watching characters in modern dress behaving like 17th century rakes, fops, country bumpkins etc. How are we to appreciate the difference in class without the assistance of costume, manners and accent?

Not very easily. The obstacles that Campbell has set for himself and the actors are insurmountable. The crisp language of Restoration Comedy suffers the fatal double incongruity of being spoken in woeful accents in a milieu that has no relation to the original. In the Toronto production, there was no attempt at English accents and the result was equally awful. The attempts at an English accent in Buffalo ranged from the execrable to the completely inept. Not all of them tried. Robert Rutland as the country bumpkin Sir Tunbelly Clumsey lived up to his name but he sounded like an American bumpkin and not an English one. He looks like a natural comic but not in that role in this production.

The only other comet in the accent department goes to Mary Beth Lacki as Miss Hoyden, who manages to produce an accent suggestive of northern England. The actors do not so much deserve criticism as the comment that they are mostly in the wrong play. Vincent O’Neill, the Artistic Director of ICTC can do comedy and much else no doubt but as Sir Novelty he appeared to be striving for laughs without getting them. Chris Corporandy as Young Fashion, Gary Darling as Coupler and the others would have produced much better results in a play with a language that that they can pronounce.
The next production of the ICTC will be The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh and it will run from February 26 to March 28, 2010.

The Relapse by Sir John Vanbrugh opened on January 15 and will run until February 14, 2010 at the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street, Buffalo, N.Y.

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