- The Double Dealerby William Congreve
Going by the number of recent productions on both sides of the Atlantic, we appear to be living through, if not quite a golden age, then at least a glittering moment of enthusiasm for Restoration drama, especially the comedies. This is due in no small part to Selina Cadell and her directorial efforts with the plays of William Congreve. A superb high comedy actor in her own right, to date Cadell has tackled two of Congreve's best-known and most accomplished works: Love for Love(The Swan, Stratford, 2007) and The Way of the World(Theatre Royal, Northampton, 2015), and both received their share of critical acclaim. Her latest offering, The Double Dealerat the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London, continues the trend. In this latest foray, Cadell and her cast of actors offer up a masterclass in Restoration comic performance, veering between the twin poles of cutting satire and absurd farce.
As with the far better known The Way of the World, Congreve's plot here is both excruciatingly convoluted and astonishingly slight. The Double Dealercenters on the devious attempts by the villain Maskwell (Edward MacLiam) and the seductress Lady Touchwood (Zoë Waits) to thwart the impending marriage of his would-be lover, Cynthia (also Waites), and hers, her nephew by marriage, Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt). To achieve their goal, Maskwell and Lady Touchwood also exploit each other as lovers, while the lady's husband, Lord Touchwood, is left out in the cold. Cynthia's father, Lord Plyant (Simon Chandler) is Lady Touchwood's foolish brother, whose own wife (Jenny Rainsford) commands his every thought and move. Meanwhile, Lady Froth (Hannah Stokely)—who has misplaced ambitions as a poet, at one point reciting an "heroic poem" on the theme of "Susan, the dairymaid, and our coachman" (3.1.448-9, 478-5)—neglects her coxcomb husband (Paul Reid) in favour of the equally pretentious Brisk (Jonathan Broadbent). Maskwell's plans to win Cynthia for himself come to nothing by the end of Act 5, as Cynthia and Mellefont prove too virtuous to be duped by the various plots against them. Instead, they are promised justice and restitution by Lord Touchwood, who vows to "think of punishment" for Maskwell "at [his] leisure" (5.5.76). [End Page 120]
From the start, this production took a tongue-in-cheek approach to Congreve's narrative quagmire. In a prologue written specially for the production, Cadell and music director Eliza Thompson reassure the audience that "the plot's not the thing." The real value of The Double Dealer, we were told in the program note, lies in its "brilliant use of language" and its "powerful and instinctive insight into its characters" (Cadell and Rich); it was the actors' subtly realised character portraits that would carry us through. And so it proved, aided in large part by the actors' heightened performance style, which signalled at times their own inability (or unwillingness) to fully suspend their disbelief at what their playwright demanded of them.
Pre-show, the actors entered the playing space, dressed in Restoration costumes (designed by Rosalind Ebbutt): breeches and coats for the men; elegant, silk dresses for the women. They mingled with the audience, chatting directly with them; Stokely (Lady Froth) then sang a song based on Henry Purcell's music for the original 1693 production while accompanying herself on the cello. The action took place in the round, in a square area at ground level, while two tiers of seating surrounded the actors on all four sides (they had access to the upper gallery from backstage stairs as well as a metal spiral staircase in one corner of the playing space). While not replicating the scenic configuration of late seventeenth-century stages, this design by Madeleine Girling nevertheless strived to replicate some of its effects. Actors and audience were lit by the same (electric) chandeliers, which collapsed the distinction between performers and spectators. Actors frequently directed their monologues to specific audience members or interacted with them: Broadbent's jocular Brisk...