Aleks Sierz previews a contemporary take on an 18th-century comedy with some intriguing sub-plots
THE RIVALS By Richard Sheridan Compass Theatre Company
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's first comedy, The Rivals, was written in 1775 when he was just 23. Its first production was not a success, and ground to a halt when the actor playing Sir Lucius O'Trigger was hit by an apple lobbed from the audience. But soon after, when Sheridan rewrote it, the play gradually became a hit.
Set in Bath, it tells the story of Jack Absolute, who is in love with Lydia Languish, the niece of Mrs Malaprop. Knowing that Lydia likes the romantic idea of being courted by a soldier, Jack pretends to be Ensign Beverley.
Complications arise as Lydia's friend Julia is courted by Faulkland, while Jack's friend Bob Acres and loony aristo Sir Lucius also fancy Lydia, but all ends happily.
Director Neil Sissons says: "It's a sure-fire comedy, but it's also much more than that. I particularly like the way in which the subplot of Faulkland's relationship with Julia mirrors the main love affair between Jack and Lydia. And although it is known as a boisterous play, actually the best way to perform it is to stress the reality of the characters."
For example, Mrs Malaprop is not just a "huge comic character but is also a woman who, despite all her certainty, is deeply insecure. Although the comedy comes from her ludicrous malapropisms, modern scholarship is unsure if some of the words she uses are really misused - they might just be archaic words whose meaning has been forgotten. So, in our version, she'll occasionally stop as if she's unsure of a word.
To a contemporary sensibility, "Jack is quite manipulative, which is usually seen as a bad thing now, but somehow he is so young and confident that audiences can't help but warm to him."
Similarly, Lydia is perfectly understandable: "At first she's in love as much with the idea of love as with Jack", and her reading of romantic novels has influenced her views of what romance should be. Pointing out that Jack has been brought up strictly by his domineering father, Sissons says that "the generation gap is one of the strongest themes in the play.
It's this that makes The Rivals so universal, and it's very easy for schoolkids to relate to the generation gap."
Nationwide tour from February 4 to May 29. Tour schedule and box office: www.compasstheatrecompany.com For details of workshops, resource packs and postshow discussions, Tel: Craig Dronfield 0114 275 5328