First performed in 1700, William Congreve’s quintessential Restoration Comedy has an appeal which defies the sillier conventions of its genre. Three centuries on, it is one of the period’s most performed works – and for good reason. Under the flowery language and the frivolous plot, it retains a lot of humour and some very recognizable social commentary. This production has stuck close to the spirit of the original whilst keeping the comedy accessible. It goes all out on the lavish costuming, intricate wigs and baroque music (although the actors seemed a trifle embarrassed by the rhyming couplets which close each scene).
The Way of the World features a huge cast of interrelated characters, most of whom are rather disagreeable but very, very funny. The convoluted plot is driven by the caddish Mirabell’s intention to marry a lovely (and, most importantly, rich) young lady named Millamant. With the help of friends, a former lover and conniving servants, he is determined to trick consent from her guardian, the formidable Lady Wishfort. The vain older lady, played with panache, would rather see her ward marry the boorish Sir Wilfull. The latter, unfortunately, is a country bumpkin who drinks too much and makes himself the butt of many jokes – another standout comic character in a play brimming with great caricatures. Rounding out the cast and delivering some of the wittiest lines are an irrepressible pair of fops, Witwoud and Petulant. Wearing huge wigs and dandied up with cosmetics, they steal every scene they’re in.
Congreve filled his play with legal and financial conundrums which complicate the relationship between the sexes. The proposal scene between Mirabell and Millamant is less a romantic moment, more a comedic hammering-out of a prenuptial agreement (he is never to approach her tea-table without invitation; she must refrain from wearing corsets when expecting, and so forth). Of course, all ends well, but The Way of the World is not an easy play to follow. Viewers must keep track of innumerable prior affairs, inheritance clauses and family ties. I would have preferred slightly slower delivery on the part of some of the actors. More time was needed for the twists and turns of a complicated plot to sink in. Happily, even if you’re not entirely sure what’s going on, the jokes cannot fail to amuse.