Two squabbling couples? Tick. Comical servants? Tick. Cantankerous rich father figure? Tick. Mistaken identity? Tick. Improbable plot? Tick. Borat’s mankini? …well, a tick for that too, actually!
It’s quite a treat to see NIDA stage The Rivals, as productions of Sheridan don’t come around all that often, despite his stature in the canon.
Taking their cue from the play’s setting in Bath, set and props designer Alice Morgan has created a wide, fairly empty set that evokes a modern health spa via the aesthetics of an iPod. Brigid Dighton’s lavish costumes splice this pretentious strain of modern high fashion with the equally absurd dress of the late 1700s. This mix of the modern and historical signals a production acknowledging its cultural distance without aiming to be an outright period piece.
Although filled with many highly amusing figures, The Rivals is a comedy of manners, reliant on its intricate plot which keeps its foolish characters lurching from one ridiculous misunderstanding to another.
Jennifer Hagan’s direction is very tight and extremely detailed, injecting a great deal of action and physical humour into the piece. A lot of extra slapstick and “business” has been used in addition to Sheridan’s script resulting in a lively show on the whole, although some scenes do drag a little. In fact, it seemed at times that most of the big laughs resulted from these unscripted contributions to the play, the plethora of sight-gags and deliberately overwrought comic acting. Sometimes an over-reliance on bulking out a production with additional shtick can lead one to suspect that somewhere along the line those involved in the show started lacking faith in the text’s intrinsic appeal, that Sheridan’s jokes might not be enough, or perhaps out of a nervousness over the antiquated language.
From a purist’s point of view, this might be disappointing, but it is hard to fault this production for it. Farce is often reliant on the contributions of the performers’ comic talents to supplement the script, and some leeway has to be allowed. To be fair, it’s fairly common in performances of Shakespeare’s comedies as well.
NIDA’s Third Year students form a strong, sizable ensemble cast, bouncing off each other with no-one hogging the spotlight more than is their due. They mesh well, as you would hope of a group that has already worked and grown together over some years. Indeed, it is regrettable that there are few professional ensembles around these days which have the same opportunity.
The talented Akos Armont as Sir Anthony Absolute is responsible for many of the high points of the play, his comic timing and knack for imbuing the preposterous role with a strong characterisation is well suited to the material. Samantha Jane Young plays the famous role of Mrs. Malaprop (after whom the term malapropism was aptly coined) with verve and a commendable willingness to make herself look ridiculous at every turn. Shannon Dooley is excellent as the petulant Lydia Languish, obsessed with romantic notions of the delights of true love and poverty even when they contradict her genuine feelings, as is Jessica Marais as her somewhat more sensible friend Julia. Faulkland (Eamon Farren) is perhaps the male equivalent of Lydia, a hopeless romantic plagued by irrational fears that generate some absurd developments and many hearty laughs. Noteworthy were Benn Welford as the buffoonish Bob Acres, and Paul-William Mawhinney and Aidan Gillett, who seem criminally underused as the comical servants Fag and Thomas.
This production of Sheridan’s The Rivals doesn’t quite manage to be consistently hilarious, but there are laughs aplenty and the requisite improbable ending to recommend it. After all, what would a comedy of manners be without an incompetently executed double duel and multiple marriages at the end?
Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Venue: Parade Theatres, NIDA | 215 Anzac Parade, Kensington
Dates/Times: Thursday 12, Friday 13, Saturday 14, Monday 16, Tuesday 17 April at 7.30pm
Tickets: Adult $25 | Conc $15 | Groups 10+ $15
Bookings: 132 849 or www.ticketek.com.au