Monday, May 03, 2010

The School for Scandal (Stage on Screen production)

Given the approach to televised classical theatre of late, it would seem that anything of note was produced in and around 1599 with nothing else of interest happening until the last twenty years. As I’ve noted before that wasn’t always the attitude and their were some impressive broadcasts of classic productions throughout the history of television. As if to redress this contemporary imbalance, Stage on Screen are recording a series of special theatre productions at the Greenwich Theatre in London and releasing them on dvd, selecting plays from across theatre history.

They seek to replicate the experience of seeing the play, which in the case of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (which they've been nice enough to send me to have a look at) means including everything from the moments when the audience files in and out during the intermission to all of the bows at the end as well as the complete text of the play (or one of its versions – apparently there are several). The effect is rather like BBC Four’s experiments with the same format, the cinema projected live broadcasts of NT shows and many of the Hamlet productions I’ve reviewed for this blog, with a mix of close-ups and master shots taking in the whole stage.

The School for Scandal is a good choice for this format since it is essentially a proto-sitcom, the kind of farce that has to have been an influence on John Cleese in writing Fawlty Towers and Steven Moffat for Joking Apart. Two brothers find their morality exposed after a series of misunderstandings develop in an atmosphere of gossip and misanthopy in which reputations are broken and developed through the imaginations of an aristocratic society with little to do but mythologise. Like Sheridan’s earlier play The Rivals, hidden identities ironically lead to the revealing of emotions otherwise obscured by manners and propriety.

Stage on Screen’s approach isn’t to present a definitive version of the play; the costumes give the impression of late Eighteenth century attire but probably borrow more from the 80s new romantic reinterpretation, especially in a drinking scene which is very reminiscent of the promo for Adam Ant’s Prince Charming, which is also reflected in the mix of string and electronica on the soundtrack. The setting is a study; each scene backed by shots of old books perhaps to demonstrate how proper academic knowledge and literary fiction has given way to presumption and gossip in the atmosphere of this court.

The cast throw themselves into the text with ramshackle abandon. These are not the most complex of characters and yet in the main, even those actors wearing face paint allow the mask to drop and provide some inner depth. Jonathan Battersby and Beatrice Curnew turn the warring Sir Peter and Lady Teazle into a superb warring couple straight from a screwball comedy, him filled with a ragbag mix of disappointment and passion, her oblivious to his attentions despite their marriage license both of whom are sympathetically drawn.

Samuel Collings and Adam Redmore are such convincing brothers that at first I assumed one actor was playing both parts. Lady Sneerwell is a villain in the old sense, a kind of Iago-lite attempting to ruin lives for her own ends and Amy Rockson relishes the duplicitousness and makes such an impression in the opening scene that like a thought in the back of the mind, her presence is felt despite her absence for much of the production.

Not being otherwise too familiar with the play (in other words this is my first time), I can’t speak to how this compares to previous productions. Director Elizabeth Freestone’s approach is to offer the text at full speed challenging the audience to keep up, perhaps to give the impression, especially in the opening scenes, when character names and anecdotes are flashing about, of being at a party where you don’t know anyone and you’re expected to be entertained anyway. Slowly the pacing does recede as the story develops. The text is lucidly presented and like any period drama, more legible once you become accustomed to it.

The School of Scandal is available on dvd from Stage on Screen.