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Sunday, 4 June 2017

Cimolino’s School for Scandal shows how times, they aren’t really a’changin’

theatre review School for Scandal Stratford Festival
Sébastien Heins as Charles (centre) with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The School for Scandal 

by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Julie Fox (set, costumes), Michael Walton (lighting), Berthold Carrier (composer), Nick Bottomly (projections), Thomas Ryder Payne (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Brent Carver, Sébastien Heins, Shannon Taylor, Geraint Wyn Davies, Joseph Ziegler 

In 1777, according to Mr. Cimolino’s director’s notes, fake news was as prevalent then as it is today, with society rags full of soul and reputation destroying gossip supplied not by journalists but by those in society themselves.  Oh, how times have not changed.
Cheekily employing strategic selfies (including an 18th century equivalent), torn-from-the-1777-headlines projections and a few well-placed, updated barbs at the political establishment south of the 49th and texts, Mr. Cimolino’s production of School for Scandal holds that mirror up to our own selves in an almost entirely relatable way. Almost, but not quite.

Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Candour.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The problem is evident and it is with the text, not the production itself – too many replicated scenes in the first half of the play of scandal-mongers disparaging a multitude of colleagues, most of whom never appear onstage. As overheard on opening night at intermission, “Yes, I get it, they [the scandal mongers] are awful and hypocritical for spreading gossip. Is that it?”

Well, do not despair, theatre-goers, it begins to pick up considerably with the appearance of the oft-mentioned Charles Surface, portrayed by Sébastien Heins.  Mr. Heins brings a much-needed charismatic boost later in the first half which promises (and later delivers) a little more action and excitement to come, but one does have those interminable gossip scenes first.  Thank goodness for Brigit Wilson’s Mrs. Candour who makes the comedic most of designer Julie Fox’s voluminous 18th c frock.  Athough the frocks and frock coats, while absolutely gorgeous, may also be literally weighing down the production, as they not only distract with their sumptuousness, but are also not as relevant to a modern audience. 

That being said, this edition of The School for Scandal is worth sticking out, not only to see all those gossip mongers get their comeuppance, but also for some very fine performances.  As mentioned, Sébastien Heins makes a thoroughly likeable rogue, with a 1000-kilowatt smile bestowed as liberally as his character Charles bestows wine.  His grins are matched by Shannon Taylor, who as Lady Teazle literally twinkles with mischief until she is chastened, and instead of playing it with frets and tears, Ms. Taylor gives Lady Teazle a subdued humility that suits the character far more strongly than the former might have done. 
Shannon Taylor and Geraint Wyn Davies as
Lady and Sir Peter Teazle.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Ms. Taylor in turn is matched by Geraint Wyn Davies who seems completely at home in the role of Sir Peter Teazle, turning from apoplectic to cherubic and back on a dime, never missing a beat either comedic or dramatic.  When he giggles, the audience can’t help but giggle with him; when he is humiliated, the audience is sympathetic. His and Ms. Taylor’s portrayal of a couple learning to accept and love each other despite their differences is alone worth the price of admission.

Joseph Ziegler as Sir Oliver Surface.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
But let us not forget a few other memorable characters.  We have Joseph Ziegler playing Sir Oliver Surface totally straight, which is far funnier than it seems; and Brent Carver as Rowley, the wisest person in the play and so of course the one who gets the least respect. Mr. Carver, plays the role with a good-natured unpretentiousness (he is clothed in the most modest costume to underscore this), the eternal optimist in a band of merry but often deluded players.  Let us also draw attention to the much abused and unnamed ‘Joseph Surface’s Servant’, played well above his station by Emilio Vieira, who made his tiny role in Twelfth Night memorable as well. 

Brent Carver as Rowley.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

So regardless of a languorous first half, the overall intention of the play and production is preserved nicely in the end:  Haters might hate, but in the words of the wise Rowley, “Let them laugh, and retort their malice only by showing them you are happy in spite of it.”  Words to live by.  

The School for Scandal continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 21.

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