Sheridan's comedy of manners gets a musical makeover, as Timothy Ramsden reports
The School for Scandal By Richard Brinsley SheridanNorthern Broadsides production touring to Bowness-on-Windermere, Richmond (North Yorkshire), Newcastle-under-Lyme, Skipton, Buxton, York, Blackpool to November 30.
Sheridan's 1777 comedy of London society, with its mix of warmth and satire, might seem a long way from Northern Broadsides' flat-vowelled, clog-dancing earthiness. But director, and Broadsides founder, Barrie Rutter is not trying to downgrade the elegance, though he would certainly know how. He began his acting career in Jonathan Miller's 1968 Nottingham production, which opened in Lady Sneerwell's gloomy room, her servant Snake picking his nose.
Broadsides are not going for this underbelly of the upper-crust approach. This is a play, says Rutter, first performed with actors and audience sharing the same light, before the days of darkened auditoria. "It is a big play, the language calling attention to itself, virtual poetry in prose."
He describes the language as "parabolic", with sentences demanding to be spoken as a long-breathed whole. "You have to go to the full stop." His production includes an extensive score (by Broadsides' Conrad Nelson), with the actors playing instruments - including four double basses, two trombones and a pair of glockenspiels, mostly learned from scratch.
This helps the audience warm to the performers, and therefore to the characters. It is also useful in a play where there are a lot of scene changes in which time evolves; after the change, the same characters remain in the same setting somewhat later.
Besides directing, Rutter plays Sir Peter Teazle, married to a wife much younger than himself. "She's dressed in pink and is a real live wire, skittish until she gets her Damascene revelation when the screen goes down."
Broadsides' tour includes theatres where audiences are on one, two, three or four sides of the stage, meaning different audience perceptions as Sir Peter is about to discover his wife in Joseph Surface's room; in some theatres, a section of spectators will see Lady Teazle's reactions as discovery - and shame - approach.
Rutter appreciates Sheridan's ability to sum up the situation by a single word change. "Lady Teazle, by all that's wonderful!" exclaims the philandering Joseph. "Lady Teazle, by all that's damnable," responds her husband when the screen goes down.
And, near the end, in this production audiences can see Sir Peter go to his wife, giving an extra warmth to an offstage moment usually out of sight.
Generally, the various characters' come-uppances do not deflect them at all. Joseph walks out, the scandalmongers chatter on. Only Lady T. learns a lesson in a play its latest director sees as a "celebration of the pleasures of romance".