When it was first performed in 1775, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals stirred controversy over its portrayal of Irish characters and a disastrous opening performance. Sheridan rewrote the play hastily and the rest is history – The Rivals took its place in the British theatrical canon. For Dalston’s Arcola Theatre, however, it is a first: never before did they present a Restoration piece in what is otherwise a hugely varied programme. The question now is, of course: is it any good?
While the studio fills up, the actors chat freely with members of the audience and are still busy donning their headgear and readjusting jackets. In Sheridan’s time, of course, a fourth wall did not divide the actors and the audience. Once the action takes flight, the eighteenth-century plot involving a lot of romantic double-crossing and hilarious misunderstandings, along with a duel that doesn’t happen, is articulated directly to the audience.
The Rivals is transferred onto the modern stage under the auspices of Selina Cadell, who retains the full text and directs an altogether impressive cast that knows how to make an audience smile. Timing and accents are all in order, yet the wordiness of it all perhaps demands more production value these days: if the aim is to bring a fully-fledged period comedy alive, there should be more to look at too. Whether purposely or not, the attention to lines and lines alone means the piece does wear a bit thin by the end.
Quite a long sit at over three hours, The Rivals does succeed in offering an entertaining glimpse into theatrical conventions of the period. The actors freely wink, nod and smile at the audience while delivering their lines. The character of Lydia Languish (a highly capable Jenny Rainsford) takes it to the extreme, swirling around dramatically and making entrances and exits with comic fervour in a comment on eighteenth-century thespian behaviours. I wish there was more of this in Cadell’s production – an intelligent commentary, and an acknowledgement of how old this play is.
It’s all in the text: Gemma Jones’s Mrs Malaprop is often truly funny when doing justice to her name, and the stark difference between the uncultured speech of Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) and the heightened language of Captain Jack Absolute (Iain Batchelor) is still reason for joy. Nevertheless, the reason for putting it on is lost on me, and I have seen edgier things from the Arcola. The Rivals here remains a trifle.
The Rivals is playing the Arcola Theatre until 15 November. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.