Review: The Country Wife, Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Susannah Fielding as The Country Wife - Photo by Manuel Harlan
Susannah Fielding as The Country Wife - Photo by Manuel Harlan

The hallmarks of Restoration comedy are everything taken to excess - from the wit and licentiousness of the plots to the gloriously resplendent costumes and the powder puff wigs.

But this latest reupholstering of William Wycherley’s 350 year old heirloom of a play is distinctly different in tone.

It’s true the sexual exuberance has lost none of its original fizz or fun but in a #metoo era there’s a darkness that overlays. After all, the sexual reckless of then is as prevalent today and it’s no laughing matter for its countless victims.

So the costumes, no less elaborate in design, are strictly monotone set against a black revolving backdrop; and the setting is almost modern although the record player nudges us closer to that later period of sexual abandon, the 1960s.

Only the country wife herself, Margery Pinchwife (Susannah Fielding), is allowed to shine in effervescent yellows to highlight her innocence. But like an Alice Tinker character from Dibley there is no less an edge to her purity.

As we swirl through the second half she ends the play in the same darks and drabs - the bright colours extinguished by her uninhibited desire to bed the gallant who has expressed an interest in her to the horror of her middle aged husband.

That lothario Horner (Lex Shrapnel) is the fulcrum of the play - a man determined to lay his hands on as many married women as possible with the consent of their husbands through the ruse that he is impotent and no possible threat.

It culminates in one of the great classic moments of the genre, the china scene, ruthlessly packed with double entendres which shocked audiences even then.

This interpretation will not satisfy everyone.

There will be a view that in Artistic Director Daniel Evans’ second season at the Festival Theatre, production themes are becoming increasingly political correct. In fact, Evans is showing considerable social responsibility and a highly tuned sensitivity to changing accept-abilities.

For make no mistake, this version of The Country Wife is every bit a masterpiece as the original. Fielding is joy, pitching perfectly her innocence and naivety with her growing sexual self-awareness while Shrapnel exudes a strength that ensures he never slips into farce.

And like all good Restoration comedy it’s very much a team effort too - watch out for Harry Lawtey and Charlotte Mills. No weak links with the added bonus of a return by the consummate Belinda Lang.

There is a clear message too, that just as changing values eclipsed Restoration comedy the first time around something similar is in the air today.