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The Way of the World

Sunday Times, 29th January 1978, John Peter

John Barton’s production of Congreve’s “The Way of the World” (RSC; Aldwych) is both a revelation and an indictment. I wonder how anyone could ever have called the play a comedy of manners. It is nothing of the kind: it is a comic drama of greed.

Barton opens the proceedings at a measured conversational pace, slowly untangling Congreve’s labyrinthine plot and revealing an everyday world of solid objects, calculating relationships and palpable people who go about their business and intrigues (mostly intrigues) with cool deliberation. I have never seen this play performed with such crisp clarity, not heard its language, a virtuoso blend of polished venom and rough-hewn colloquialism spoken with such lucid perfection.

But if Congreve could have been present he might have felt a little uncomfortable. Barton’s production reveals that his glittering prose adorns a deeply unpleasant world. That wouldn’t matter so much if Congreve didn’t take such gleeful pleasure in exposing it. “The Way of the World” is a brilliant but cold and disagreeable play about cold and disagreeable people, and Barton spares neither them nor their author.

From the very first sight of Michael Pennington’s Mirabell you know that you are in the presence of a hunter: a sensitive and intelligent man, compassionate even, but one whose feelings have been tainted by greed and who knows it. In his famous proposal scene with Millament he stands, courtly but watchful, head thrust slightly forward, his thoughts clearly focusing both on her body and her dowry. There’s not a trace of affection in the air. Judi Dench’s Millament is a dainty praying mantis, sensual but controlled. Under her arch, venomous wit lurks, just perceptibly, a sense of brittle insecurity. Their duet is also a duel.

These two performances are among the best I’ve seen in this theatre: a tour de force of timing and intelligence which transforms the usual artificial badinage into a cut-and-thrust fight for marital advantage. It is clearly going to be a stormy marriage. The other jewel of the production is Beryl Reid’s Lady Wishfort. Congreve was cruel to this woman: there’s something almost brutal in the way he ridicules the desires of someone ageing and undesirable. Miss Reid gives a performance that might have shamed him: she plays her not as a shrieking grotesque but as a simple, gullible, fretful creature, silly but brave, and not without dignity. From the rest of the cast let me single out Marjorie Bland’s sinuous, predatory Marwood; and John Woodvine’s Fainall, a pompous sensualist with hooded eyes and a grim smile: a wolf in the drawing room.

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