The Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club’s adaptation of the restoration era comedy
The Country Wife not only plays into ancient ideas about sex and nationality, but seems to support twenty-first century modes of discrimination as well.
The characters were often one-dimensional caricatures that fail to scan as effective parody or charmingly silly. There was an Italian-American stereotype so outdated that I’m frankly impressed that he made it through the performance without getting deported based on the American Immigration Act of 1924. There was a camp side-character (think the guy in the control tower from Airplane!, but subtract the self-awareness and add 35 years) who nevertheless was one of the more reliable performances in the cast. And a woman whose whole shtick was that she was not a woman, but a man in a overly-tight dress and bad wig doing a falsetto, which might have been funny for five minutes, or in the 70s, but was instead a regular character and treated like a fount of comedic gold.
The implementation was not more innovative. There is a sequence in which Mr. Pinchwife, who is, of course, jealous of his wife, nevertheless has to bring her out of the house. But he doesn’t want her to be seen. His solution is to dress her in a full burqa, leading to (by my count) three different jokes about terrorists blowing up buildings. I don’t want to imply that any subject is totally taboo. But if one is going to joke about a world-changing tragedy, I expect it to be done with subtlety and intelligence. Instead we got offensive generalisations about Muslims, followed by a second joke about how offensive the former was, as if hanging a lampshade on it makes it less problematic. It didn’t work.
Many old plays have their issues, and that hasn’t kept us from enjoying them. Clever performers can work around outdated content while still delivering the heart of the play. I’m distressed and disappointed to see that The Country Wife not only plays into ancient ideas about sex and nationality, but seems to support twenty-first century modes of discrimination as well.