London Student

‘The Way of the World’ at the Donmar Warehouse

Carleigh Nicholls analyses another restoration adaptation, this time Congreve’s ‘The Way of the World’. Considering the status of restoration drama today, the luscious set and costumes and the strong female leads, this difficult show is not to be missed!

“Well, that was complicated,” the gentleman next to me proclaimed to his wife during the interval of the Donmar Warehouse’s new production of Congreve’s The Way of the World. Indeed, the play is complex, and there are many blink and you miss moments— as there often are in Restoration works.  Restoration drama can be hard for modern audiences to swallow. It is full of contemporary allusions, insinuendo, and problematic sexual politics, often personified in the character of the rake. The carefree and immoral rake can come across as particularly predatory. However, James Macdonald, the director of this production, has done a brilliant job in conveying Congreve’s period wit to modern audiences, casting intelligent actors who seem to really understand Congreve’s material.

As another audience member explained to her friend during the interval, Mirabell wants to marry Millamant, but must obtain the approval of her aunt, Lady Wishfort, in order to obtain her full dowry. Mirabell previously had an affair with Mrs. Fainall, Lady Wishfort’s daughter, whose husband is now having an affair with Mrs. Marwood, who is secretly in love with Mirabell herself. As can be expected, plots and shenanigans ensue with more characters’ hijinks interwoven throughout. You really must pay attention to be able to enjoy all the intricacies of the plot.

Interestingly, the play was not well received during its initial run in 1700. Styles were changing, and the “freer” Stuart years were passing. The materialism and scandalous behaviour of some of the characters were inappropriate to the changing sensibilities of the time. In the wrong hands, this play could be disagreeable. Certainly, almost all the characters are to some degree unlikeable. However, this production succeeds in its cast, who are able to bring sympathy and vulnerability to even the most unlikeable of characters. This production is unmissable, especially for Restoration enthusiasts. Indeed, you will want to share your evening or afternoon partaking in the exploits of this idle class.

The play is kept in its period setting, and designer Anna Fleischle has utilized the simple set to its full capabilities. The Donmar Warehouse, where the seating surrounds the stage has an intimate layout, which works well for this play. While the majority of the play is set in Lady Wishfort’s home, one scene takes place in St. James’s Park. The actors utilize the pathways next to the seats to show “turns” around the garden. Additionally, the costumes are quite luscious, while also appropriate to the characters. For instance, the Fop, Witwoud, (Fisayo Akinade) is dressed in a pastel floral-patterned jacket, while Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne) wears a lavish, and perhaps age inappropriate, gown.

The Company of The Way of the World. Photograph: Johan Persson.

One of the interesting things about Congreve’s work is that although Mirabell (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is the protagonist, and Fainall (Tom Mison) the antagonist, their characters are not really all that different. They both are Restoration rakes, immorally traipsing their way through London. Indeed, in another story, perhaps even Mrs. Fainall’s, Mirabell could serve as the villain. Both Streatfeild and Mison do fine work with their characters. Streatfeild brings a genuineness to Mirabell, and makes the audience root for him, even with his questionable behaviour. Likewise, Mison brings a dangerous vulnerability to his Fainall. When arguing with Mrs. Marwood (Jenny Jules) in St. James’s Park, Mison portrays Fainall’s desperation, perhaps indicating that he really does love Mrs. Marwood, which does bring some dimension to his villainous behaviour.

Along with the Restoration rakes, other literary tropes appear as comedic sidekicks: Akinade portrays Witwoud, the dandy fop, Christian Patterson plays his country bumpkin half‑brother, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and Simon Manyonda plays the social climbing Petulant. Each actor brings his own into these roles, making them enjoyable to watch and more than just comedic fodder.

While Congreve’s men are interesting characters, it is the women in this production who steal the show. Sarah Hadland’s Foible is a delight. Likewise, Justine Mitchell’s expressive face and mannerisms create a truly modern Millamant. The way she articulates her lines, you could almost imagine her bantering in a pub with her friends, which surprisingly works in this production. On the one hand, Millamant is catty and mean, but on the other, she is fiercely independent and witty. Like Mirabell, the audience learns to love her for her faults. Jenny Jules also brings a vulnerability to the scheming Mrs. Marwood. She could easily be an unlikeable character, but Jules’ subtle expressions show how Mirabell has left her heartbroken. Indeed, she is an unmarried woman, getting past her prime marriageable age. Perhaps her connivances with Fainall are somewhat understandable, or at least Jules helps the audience understand her point of view. Likewise, Caroline Martin’s Mrs. Fainall is perhaps the most to be pitied. Forced into a marriage with Fainall after Mirabell has potentially impregnated her, she is now stuck in a loveless marriage, forced to help her former lover wed another. Martin shows the difficult position her character is in. When Millamant laments to her that she hopes Mirabell will be a good husband, Mrs. Fainall remarks if she doubts him, she should take up with Sir Wilfull Witwoud instead. At first glance, this could be seen as her jealousy reappearing. However, Martin’s subtle resignation as she performs her lines reminds the audience that she has indeed personally experienced Mirabell’s infidelity.

Tom Mison and Jenny Jules. Photograph: John Persson.

The real showstopper of this production is Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Wishfort. Her character is larger than life but could easily be one dimensional. Lady Wishfort is clueless and sometimes cruel, as can be seen when she needlessly berates the help. However, Gwynne makes her a multi-faceted character, who the audience comes to pity. She is a widow, and she is no longer young—facts which are mocked throughout the play. In a way, she is in the most vulnerable position of all the main characters. Her banter with Sir Rowland (Alex Beckett) is hilarious, but it is also heartbreaking, especially when he nastily insults her behind her back, while at the same time making love to her. She has been cruelly used by those she loves and cares for. However, as this play shows, ‘tis but the way of the world.

The Way of the World is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until the 26th May, 2018.

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Carleigh Nicholls

Carleigh Nicholls is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but is currently based in London. She is a great appreciator of theatre, particularly plays with a historical nature, but enjoys all genres. Her general research interests include politics, religion, and the law in Stuart Britain, with a particular focus on Restoration Scotland.