Confusion reigns in Sheridan's hilarious satirical masterpiece about 18th-century society. Timothy Ramsden reports
By Richard Brinsley Sheridan; Theatre Royal Bath Productions; Tours to Guildford, Richmond, Woking, Eastbourne, Bromley, Cheltenham, Mold, Canterbury, Salford until March 25
Director Christopher Morahan describes The Rivals in Sheridan's terms as "a laughing comedy", with a marvellous sense of fun and character.
There may be autobiographical elements to the play's story: Sheridan had fought a duel, run off with a young woman and, Morahan estimates, was "a sharp fellow". However, his play's high spirits define its mood: "The Rivals is benevolent, not a piece of social criticism," says Morahan.
If there is an exception to this goodwill, it comes in Sheridan's fellow Irishman, the belligerent Sir Lucius O'Trigger. Late 18th-century Bath, where this comedy of lovers and parental authority is set, was "a town totally on the make. People came to improve their fortune, even if, like Sir Lucius, they had no fortune to improve."
Sheridan would understand the poor Irishman seeking wealth, but is quite savage towards him as someone with a chip on his shoulder, continuously involved with conflict, seeing his drawn sword as a trusty counsellor.
It is important to play each character as real, including Mrs Malaprop, who mangles the language's longer words. "That society was extremely mobile, with people improving themselves. There was no received pronunciation as yet, and if people had cash and ambition they could find a place in society. Mrs Malaprop is an autodidact who does her damnedest to be a lady of education. She believes she has the right word every time, and about one time in five she has. Her innocence gives comedy to the character."
Country squire Bob Acres has both sweetness and pathos. He is a generous character, wooing someone we know will never love him. "We enjoy his innocence of everything around him and enjoy his fear."
Part of that innocence is asking his best friend Jack Absolute to bear his challenge, not knowing Jack, under another name, is his rival for Lydia Languish. She is "very charming, a really high romantic. Her bible is romantic fiction," and her fantasy about a love-match in line with such fiction brings her disappointment. Her friend Julia loves Faulkland, "the most complex character in the play, incapable of self-belief," who, in his egocentricity, remains ignorant of the distress his doubt causes Julia.
Jack's father, Sir Anthony Absolute, is comic in his swift switches of mood. He is also the one who comforts Mrs Malaprop when she's bereft, a tearful clown in her white-face, pink-cheek make-up, having passed herself off in love-letters as a young woman.
All of this is contained within a swift dawn-to-dusk comic plot, providing a narrative drive, which is another of the play's many pleasures.