Following his hypnotic revival of Roots in 2013, James MacDonald returns to the Donmar Warehouse to direct William Congreve’s The Way of The World. The production premiered in March 1700, just after the 1688 Revolution that saw the overthrowing of James I and the creation of a new set of social codes. These customs were seen primarily amongst the bourgeoisie, with the addition of a capitalist system that gave significant priority to property and property law. Widely regarded as one of the finest Restoration comedies, The Way of the World adopts a complex plot with considerable wit, a valiant disregard for consequences, and a dyspeptic outlook on married life.

The socially impaired family of Lady Wishfort is alight with scandal. An inheritance of £6000 is exposed, and the sum is not to be lost. Love amounts to little when revenge conquers desire, and the fate of lovers Mirabell and Millamant hangs in the balance of a conspiracy hatched by a pair of adulterers. As the household wages war, the reputation of Lady Wishfort is threatened by the incessant scheming, which leaves the true value of honour to reveal itself before all is too late.

Designed by Anna Fleischle, mahogany chambers stir a spicy ambience into the airs and graces of our companions – men with a curl to the hair and upper lip, as well as women with corseted waists and steel-boned mouths. Floral coats float about the knee, complimenting embroidered waistcoats and supple wigs, one braided with gold thread and skimming the shoulder blades foppishly. The conversation is as rich as those it belongs to, a false camaraderie between Mirabell (played by Geoffrey Streatfeild) and Fainall (Tom Mison) becoming immediately obvious. With a face like that of a Monet painting, Mison’s features are shrouded with the fog of slander, an alluring red herring that points to the deception about to unfold.

Fans dangle surreptitiously from the elbows of the female players, smiles hiding tongues filled with poison, and looks of hate masking eyes overcome with lust. Ringlets climb over one other, each coiffure a work of art, decorating pious friendships and their secrets cuffed with lace. The action builds like a tiered wedding cake, drenched with affluent marzipan and filled with sticky obstacles. Not a moment is wasted, and the cast of fourteen navigate the narrative expertly. Indeed, their vanity is highly amusing, with a decadent sense of humour proving to be the source of much hilarity. The Way of The World is a true masterpiece, sweeping its audience into seventeenth century England on a tide of folly. MacDonald handles Congreve’s dangerous business of marriage with admirable dexterity, and has created a period drama with a bite.

The Way of the World is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 May

Photo: Johan Persson