The contemporary theatrical climate poses a threat to playwrights such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan. His works concern themselves with artifice, gossip and profligacy; The School for Scandal specifically details the problematic marriage of the elderly Sir Peter Teazle and a young gold-digger, as well as a contest for love and legacy fought between the slickly hypocritical Joseph Surface and his roguish spendthrift of a brother, Charles. Synopsised in a certain way and you’d never guess the play was written 235 years ago, but it was, and the danger in a time when interpretation and update are seen as vital to box office success is that the eighteenth-century origins of the piece may be disregarded, and the opportunity for audiences to subtly draw out parallels rather than being brazenly confronted with them, destroyed.
Luckily, then, young and innovative a director though Jamie Lloyd is, his Scandal – the opening production of Theatre Royal Bath’s first summer season since 2002 without the legendary Peter Hall at the helm – is an exemplar of well-researched period gaiety. He and his production team have clearly recognised that the brilliance of the play lies in Sheridan’s linguistic dexterity, and work to give it all the space it needs to breathe. Central to this approach is Soutra Gilmour’s white-washed set: simple and stylish, but flexible enough to capture the distinct atmosphere of multiple homes. With wall panels that rotate from portraits into bookcases, and a panelled room divider which shutters open to reveal a balcony, a back room or an upstairs landing, the design also gives Lloyd full reign to demonstrate his choreographic knack for managing stage business, with a bustling ensemble facilitating scene changes with the same effortless elegance as they did in his She Stoops to Conquer earlier this year.
As with that production, the cast is not-quite-universally stellar. It is James Laurenson who lets the side down here, robbing Sir Peter of his near-unassailable sardonicism, with a strangely stolid, low-key performance. Other performers have yet to fully settle into the rhythm of the play, with its frequent ‘raised-eyebrow’ asides, but are nevertheless adept at providing the laughs by way of relishing each line of tongue-waggingly salacious dialogue they are tasked with delivering – none more so than Edward Bennett, whose unravelling in the famous concealment scene is a study in comic mania. There’s a scene-stealing turn, too, from Maggie Steed, whose Mrs Candour – the most consummately indiscreet of the play’s gossips – spreads her malicious tittle-tattle in a breathless simper as false as her wig.
In the end, as it should be, the play is the star, and Sheridan’s epigrammatic wit and tongue-in-cheek moralism prove more than robust enough to translate through time without any gaudy directorial conceits imposed upon them. It would be perfectly fair to note that this is far from a brave choice for Bath, and given that its season continues with Terry Johnson’s Hysteria starring Anthony Sher, and The Tempest directed by former RSC head Adrian Noble, that doesn’t look set to change. But with the risk-taking Ustinov Studio just next door, it’s a comment which seems more-or-less irrelevant; classics such as these still deserve to be seen – and if the productions they receive are as elegant as Lloyd’s, and as the Theatre Royal where they are to be staged, there’ll be no complaints from me.