A day out at Stratford-upon-Avon to see a couple of Restoration plays at the Swan RSC Theatre and, surprisingly (to me at least) women were on top in both. Restoration plays are from when theatres were reopened after a 17-year ban by the (right but repulsive) puritans of Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell’s son (not a dynasty) Richard couldn’t hack it as Lord Protector, the army effectively said those Cavaliers had a point – Charles II, have this crown and try not to get involved in another civil war, (or to bollocks things up like your dad).
With Charles II restored to the throne in 1660, the Restoration period was underway and lasted for a generation and was roughly the start of a hundred years or so of the Enlightenment – a period noted for reason and logic, as well as liberty and constitutional reform.
When Charles was exiled in Europe he was exposed to a lot of theatre, and became an active patron of the arts on his restoration. Apart from reopening the theatres he also demanded that female characters should be played by women, Most recently people would have been used to seeing women played by male actors, but now they would see gender politics brought to the fore by actresses in a new series of Restoration plays across all the genres.
Venice Preserved, by Thomas Otway, was written in 1682, 70 years after Shakspeare’s last play and immediately apparent is how much closer to modern English the language is. This a play we did not know and had not read in advance yet the dialogue was considerably easier to follow than Labour’s Brexit strategy. This is a play of political plotting and betrayal, apparently in part alluding to the recent struggles between Catholicism and Protestantism, between Church and the State. The only honest characters are the two main women – Belvidera, a Senator’s daughter, and Aquilina the brothel keeper. And Jodie McNee and Natalie Dew respectively give two of the strongest performances.
Set in a Blade Runneresque dystopian present or near future this tale of Venice in ruins is set on a bleak empty stage, illuminated in occasional neon and memorably, during a prison sequence, in dazzling lasers. This a play of morals, dishonesty and deception. But there are precious few whose morals we would support. As a reformation play, it is probably apt that it is populated by the ‘Wrong but Wromantic’ along with the ‘Right but Repulsive’ as the English civil war opponents were described by 1066 and All That.
The light relief is played out by John Hodgkinson as yet another corrupt Senator with a predilection for sadomasochism at the hands (and whips) of Aquilina.
As a performance, it is too long. Read the synopsis and the major themes are played out in the first few minutes. Unfortunately, it takes another two and a half hours to tell us what we then already know.
The second play of the day was a little more jolly. The Provoked Wife is a comedy of manners written by John Vanburgh in 1697. Again the language is very modern (save for the odd Gadzooks). And so are the themes, albeit by the mores of the 17th century.
Lady Brute (Alexandra Gilbreath) is tired of her tedious, drunken husband (Jonathan Slinger). When she decides to spice up her love life with a younger man, scandal threatens to ruin her. The scandal is fomented by Lady Bountiful and her French lady-in-waiting.
This is no dystopian performance, past or present. Set in the 17th Century it is played in costume. Again, it is overly long but at least it is a comedy and played for laughs. A combination of English farce and Noel Coward comedy, this is a welcome relief from the stark amorality of Venice Preserved.
Once again the women are the lead. They seek to change their lives or to change the lives of others. The men are the objects upon which the women play out their dramas, although the main centres of attention for Lady Brute and her companion seem almost 21st-century new-manish by comparison to Lord Brute. This role reversal is what would have scandalised the contemporary audience – but the age of enlightenment was getting into full swing, and the play’s the thing.
It was certainly interesting and rewarding to see two restoration plays in one day. In Shakespeare country, one is used to the words resonating across the centuries. But these plays didn’t just seem to have relevance for today. They could have almost been written today. Certainly spending some time working out the context in which they were written helps – in some ways, more so than with Shakespeare.
Many of the cast perform in both plays. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult that must be on the same day, but all who do seem to switch roles without any accidental crossovers of character.
As always the Swan is a great theatre to see any performance. Close to the action with excellent sightlines. A little too close if the blood is flowing, but there is little of that in either of these. Would I recommend you see either or both of these plays? Yes, if you like Blade Runner and/or farce. Will I want to see them again? No.
And as a final aside, next time you are in Stratford, try a little pre-evening performance dinner at Susie’s Cafe Bar in The Other Place (the third RSC theatre space) just a five-minute stroll along the river. Give yourself time – the service isn’t the quickest – but the food and range of drinks are both very good and good value for money. It is also one of the few restaurants that seem to be able to cope with online bookings for the same day.
The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019
The Provoked Wife
The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019