Antidote to sentiment

26th May 2006 at 01:00
SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER. By Oliver Goldsmith. Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. until July 1. Tel: 0161 833 9833

Timothy Ramsden hears how Oliver Goldsmith's 18th-century comedy offers more insights than Jung

Great comedy endures by being recognisable, says Braham Murray, who directs this Manchester production of Goldsmith's 18th-century comedy. And it plays for high stakes.

Though he insists the play is very funny, initially for its lines and characters, then increasingly in its situations, for Murray it is about letting go of old ideas and received notions. His description of the story suggests serious aspects of human experience, which he believes audiences will recognise.

"It's better than Jung," as someone commented to him. Here is an old couple, the Hardcastles, living in the middle of nowhere, in a disastrous second marriage. He loves all things old, she wants to be in the fashion.

Mrs Hardcastle, too, is trying to force her oafish son on her ward, young Constance Neville. Neither wants anything to do with the other.

Then two young men arrive. One, Marlow, is suffering from the English male's malady of regarding any woman he might love as a Madonna, and only able to let go sexually with the likes of barmaids. And, Murray says, the young woman he meets, Kate Hardcastle, heals this by seeming to be "something she would never be in a million years, a slut. So she experiences things she has never known before. She is excited, and frightened. Then she slowly lets the sluttishness slip away, eventually letting Marlow make love to a lady."

The play's other young lady, Constance Neville, is "feisty, practical and down to earth. She has to deal with a lover, Hastings, who is very romantic."

He would fly away with her, unwilling to wait (as she will) two or three years to be together. However, Constance's practicality will not let her leave without her jewels. Running away, she knows, is fine, but how do you live afterwards?

No wonder the play was Goldsmith's "deliberate antidote to sentimental comedies where everything was wet and ended happily," as Murray describes it.

Like The Rivals' Mrs Malaprop, Dorothy Hardcastle remains outside the final rejoicing. She has coddled her son Tony Lumpkin, who has become a rebel, going down the pub to escape from her and the stepfather he cannot bear.

Tony misrepresents the Hardcastle home as an inn for revenge against his step-father, yet it is Mr Hardcastle who finally, deliberately, lets on that his wife has lied about Tony's age and he can have his independence now.

So Tony goes, as do the four lovers, leaving the old lady alone with her hated husband; not your 18th-century sentimental happy ending at all.

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