The Way of the World: William Congreve

The Way of the World

★★★★

(Donmar Warehouse, 25 May 2018)

Midway through last week, I saw that Kerstin had posted on Facebook about William Congreve’s The Way of the World, first performed in 1700 and now playing in Covent Garden once again, this time in the cosy Donmar Warehouse. I was sorely tempted, as I hadn’t seen a Restoration comedy for years. By chance there was a single seat left on Friday night; and so off I went, for a thoroughly self-indulgent evening of belles, beaux, dastardly rakes, romantic dowagers, wicked stratagems and – I devoutly hoped – virtue rewarded. Although it sometimes proved difficult to fathom exactly who was gulling whom at any given moment, I had a wonderful time, savouring the dazzling costumes and the accomplished cast, who brought out all the sparkle of Congreve’s elegant wit.

Mirabell (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is in love. Everyone knows he’s in love. In fact, he has been in love with the witty Millamant (Justine Mitchell) for so long that his friend Fainall (Tom Mison) thinks it’s becoming positively dull. Isn’t it time that Mirabell did something about it? But Mirabell has run into problems. In order to get close to Millamant, he had to butter up her widowed aunt Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne), but unfortunately Lady Wishfort took his compliments too much to heart and developed an eye for him. Mirabell has had to dash her ambitions, earning that lady’s eternal animadversion and her vow to scupper all his chances with her lovely niece. Things aren’t looking good. If Mirabell is feeling hopeless, Fainall is in an even tighter bind. He has married Lady Wishfort’s widowed daughter, now Mrs Fainall (Caroline Martin), who has brought him a nice little fortune, if only he could get his hands on it. Money is really what greases the cogs of Fainall’s marriage, for love isn’t a possibility: his heart is still tangled up in his ongoing amour with his mother’s friend Mrs Marwood (Jenny Jules). What to do?!

Eventually, Mirabell and his ally Mrs Fainall come up with a cunning plan to help his case with Millamant. They know that Lady Wishfort is itching to marry, thereby to spite Mirabell by tying up her fortune elsewhere and to block his ambitions with Millamant (I’m still not quite sure how, but never mind). So they decide to provide Lady Wishfort with the ideal suitor. What about Sir Roland, Mirabell’s dashing uncle, who will arrive at the house and sweep Lady Wishfort off her feet? She won’t be able to resist him. There’s one tiny hitch, of course, in that Sir Roland doesn’t exist, but Mirabell engages his valet Waitwell (Robin Pearce) to do a bit of dressing up. The key thing will be that Sir Roland’s marriage will be illegal: not only doesn’t he exist, but Waitwell is already married, secretly, to Lady Wishfort’s maid Foible (Sarah Hadland). What can possibly go wrong?

Well, plenty, as it turns out. Mrs Marwood isn’t as foolish as anyone believes, and is perfectly capable of taking an advantage when it presents itself. Lady Wishfort has decided to get Millamant married off as soon as possible, and has summoned her country yokel nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud (Christian Patterson) to woo her errant niece. Millamant, of course, who favours wit and reading and elegant conversation, wouldn’t be seen dead within half a mile of the country, so poor, straightforward Sir Wilfull is in for a hard time. And then, as if the company weren’t exuberant enough, there are two further house guests: the voluble dandy Witwoud (Fisayo Akinade), who just happens to also be Sir Wilfull’s estranged half brother (keep up!), and Witwoud’s taciturn, sarcastic friend Petulant (Simon Manyonda). Can Millamant retain her freedom? Can Fainall get his hands on his wife’s fortune? Can Mirabell, with the help of his friends and of Millamant’s maid Mincing (Gabrielle Brooks), finally achieve his heart’s desire, and swap the cynicism of a man of the world for the contentment of married bliss? All’s to play for.

The cast were uniformly wonderful, but one or two did particularly stand out. Haydn Gwynne was absolutely brilliant as Lady Wishfort. I saw her as Margaret Thatcher in The Audience, years ago, but that was a comparatively serious role and I was delighted to see her now firing on full comic power. She brought out Lady Wishfort’s ridiculousness, but also the poignancy of her situation: an older woman, widowed and hoping for a second chance at love, whose ambitions are mocked and undermined by the young people around her. I really enjoyed Justine Mitchell’s Millamant, who seemed incredibly natural and had wonderful comic timing; though I did slightly wonder why she was speaking with an Irish accent while everyone else was upper-class English. And I was utterly charmed by Fisayo Akinade’s frivolous, fripperied Witwoud – a kind of Anthony Blanche before the fact, but without the latter’s acerbic wit. He pulled off one of the most convincing drunk scenes I’ve seen on stage, without ever losing his sweetness and amiability, and he was such a perfect fop that he might have wandered out of a Heyer novel. These are just my three favourites and I wish I could burble happily about everyone – Patterson’s lumbering, lovable Sir Wilfull; Streatfield’s elegantly calm Mirabell; and, of course, Tom Mison’s eminently rakish Fainall… All deserve laurels.

It was just all jolly good fun, expertly directed by James MacDonald and gorgeously designed by Anna Fleischle. There were billowing shirt-sleeves, beautifully embroidered waistcoats and frock coats, not to mention the seriously good wigs. It was especially good to come to Congreve after having heard his witty libretti for Semele and The Judgement of Paris, and there were so many good aphorisms in the play that I’m going to find a copy of the text. By happy chance, I’ve just realised that I actually also have a novella by Congreve on my shelf – Incognita, which it’s clearly time to reread. I’m so pleased I made the effort to go along, and in fact I had such a good time that I’ve just impulsively booked for another dose of Baroque theatrical wit in a couple of weeks: Moliere’s Tartuffe.

Find out more about the Donmar Warehouse

The Way of the World

Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne) judges how to respond to Mirabell (Geoffrey Streatfeild)

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