Love's middle way

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Aleks Sierz sets the scene for a Sheridan comedy

The Rivals

By Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Bristol Old Vic

The Rivals, written in 1775, was Richard Brinsley Sheridan's first success and features one of the great comic creations of the English stage, Mrs Malaprop, now played at the Bristol Old Vic by Selina Cadell.

Set in Bath, the play tells the story of Jack Absolute, who's in love with Mrs Malaprop's niece, Lydia Languish. Knowing that Lydia loves romantic fiction, Jack pretends to be a soldier. Complications arise when Lydia's friend Julia is courted by Faulkland, and Lydia is also pursued by Bob Acres and Sir Lucius O'Trigger, but in the end all turns out well.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh says, "The Rivals is about the generation gap, and Sheridan himself had a very problematic relationship with his father.

Some of the best writing in the play is in the scenes between Jack and his father, Sir Anthony Absolute."

Sheridan, moreover, is "very incisive about the relationship between love and money. Jack thinks that you must absolutely marry the girl that you love, but you mustn't be silly and forsake her fortune by eloping with her.

Sheridan eloped with his own wife, so he's satirising the excesses of the age."

The play is "all about personality types, and Sheridan plays with these types, while also creating three-dimensional characters. Jack, for example, is an absolutely consummate actor. And everything he does comes from his feeling of supreme self-confidence - he's so sure that Lydia loves him."

By contrast, Lydia is "headstrong and rebels against the constraints that have been imposed by the older generation. She's 17, gets locked in her room if she doesn't do what she's told and lives in a fantasy world - the timeless condition of teenage girls."

The most important thing about Mrs Malaprop "is that she thinks she's the most well-educated person in the world. And she believes she has an ability to use language far above anyone else. She's also someone who agrees with one person one moment, and with someone else the next."

The main message of the play is moderation. "Sheridan believed in avoiding extremes and trying always to find a middle road." Young audiences should enjoy not only the dialogue's wit, but also "recognise the emotional relationships between the young couples - which really haven't changed much, although the position of women is no longer the same."

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