Starting afresh with a Sheridan classic

24th May 1996 at 01:00
THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, By Richard Brinsley Sheridan, English Touring Theatre

Director John Burgess usually directs new plays, and he has decided to approach Sheridan's masterpiece, first produced in 1777, as a new work, taking it on the evidence of its words.

Gone is the over-dressed wedding-cake sugar-pink world that Burgess says put him off previous productions. Instead, he has interpreted the play "as a forward-looking Shakespearean romance", dealing with such grand themes as decency, Englishness and the way society corrupts human nature. Burgess has set the play five years after its premiere, between the American and French revolutions, the 18th century's great attempts to clear out society's rottenness.

Despite the title, the scandal-mongers who do their worst to damage as many reputations as possible occupy less than a quarter of the play.

Their names sum them up; Mrs Candour, Sir Benjamin Backbite, Lady Sneerwell. Lucy Cohu is a young attractive Sneerwell, not the ridiculous older woman seen in many productions, which makes her a sort of shadow version of Lady Teazle, the young wife of the elderly Sir Peter Teazle, who aspires to join the fashionable world that Sneerwell rules.

For Burgess, Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are a pair like Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: they have true hearts but are embarrassed by their feelings. He fears she will laugh at him; she is afraid her depth of feeling is unfashionable.

Another echo of Much Ado is the character of Maria, Sir Peter's ward, with whom Charles Surface is in love and whom his brother Joseph wants to marry for her money, who has a similar role to Hero in the Shakespeare play.

The Surfaces reflect Sheridan's hopes and fears, the dissolute but generous Charles being what the author wanted to be, the mean and hypocritical Joseph what he feared he might be.

Burgess sees The School for Scandal as an anthology of the 18th century's greatest theatrical scenes - "like a 'three tenors' concert, re-orchestrated hits stuffed into one play and written as by an angel".

Runs 2 hours 45 minutes. Tours to Worthing Connaught until May 25, Salisbury Playhouse May 28-June 1, Barnstaple Queen's June 5-8, Oxford Playhouse June 11-15, Blackpool Grand June 25-29. Details of education work: 01270 501800.

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