The Rivals

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

29/07/2006 - 02/09/2007

Production Details

By Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Ken Blackburn

Written in 1775 by Sheridan when he was just 23, The Rivals is in constant play around the English speaking world.  Its youthful exuberance and sparkling wordplay so brilliantly captures love, contempt, marriage, position and wealth that it remains as fresh, bright and relevant as it was when it was written.

The privileged Captain Jack Absolute disguises himself as Ensign Beverly, a poor army officer, in order to woo the gorgeous but hopelessly idealistic Lydia Languish, who believes that true love can only be hers if she elopes with a penniless man.  As Jack plots to secure his future with Lydia he must evade detection by Lydia’s overbearing aunt, Mrs Malaprop and his own father, Sir Anthony Absolute, as well as outwitting other rivals for Lydia’s attention.  Jack and Lydia’s romance is further complicated through a myriad of mistaken identities, mischievous servants, secret trysts and squabbling lovers before the comedy’s triumphant resolution.

THE PLAYWRIGHT Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s own youthful ventures – an elopement, two near fatal duels, an estrangement from his father over his rash behaviour – form the autobiographical springboard for The Rivals.  Born in Dublin, educated at Harrow, he spent his youth in Bath during a time of great prosperity for the town where fashionable society went to see and be seen and courtship was the official pastime of the leisure class.

Sheridan eloped to France with the beautiful singer Elizabeth Linley, much to his father’s displeasure.  Forced to fight several duels to defend his wife’s honour on their return to Bath, the two fled to London where Sheridan took up writing full time premiering The Rivals in 1775 at the Covent Garden Theatre.  Following a cool reception, Sheridan took eleven days to produce the script that catapulted the play into the smash hit of its day and it is to his endless credit that the name of his character Mrs Malaprop passed into the English Dictionary and immortality through her fantastic mangling of the language.

Sheridan went on to become a partner in management of the famed Drury Lane Theatre and write his second most famous play The School For Scandal.  He then entered politics where his theatrical oration in Parliament was legendary, but romantic intrigues, political battles and dodges from the debt collector eventually took their toll and he died in 1816 in debt and poverty.

David/Thomas  -  PHILIP GRIEVE
Lydia Languish  -  SARAH SOMERVILLE
Julia Melville  -  NARELLE AHRENS
Jack Absolute  -  AARON WARD
Sir Anthony Absolute  -  BRUCE PHILLIPS
Sir Lucius O'Trigger  -  GERALD BRYAN
Bob Acres  -  NICK BLAKE

Set design  -  JOHN HODGKINS
Lighting design  -  PHILIP BLACKBURN
Costume design  -  GILLIE COXILL
Stage Manager  -  DUSHKA BLAKELY
Technical Operator  -  MARCUS McSHANE

Theatre ,

2 hrs 30 mins, incl. interval

Insanely long

Review by Lynn Freeman 09th Aug 2006

It’s interesting how literature and theatre from some historical periods comes to its "best by" date earlier than others. Restoration period follows the time of Shakespeare, yet Restoration drama feels so much more dated.

The Rivals involves love triangles, duels, and treachery, the usual Restoration fare, but what makes it memorable is the twisted and turned language of the "oracular tongued", weather-beaten she dragon, Mrs Malaprop.

As the linguistically challenged Mrs M, Geraldine Brophy doesn’t just look the part either, she revels in every strangulated word.

Aaron Ward clearly enjoys himself as the too-clever-by-half romantic hero, Jack Absolute, and Bruce Phillips is just as enjoyable as his cantankerous father. Nick Blake’s Bob Acres, the cowardly rural suitor for the lovely Lydia Languish, is a delight, as is Stephen Butterworth as Lucy’s untrusting suitor.

Sarah Somerville and Narelle Ahrens (Lydia and her friend Julia) are suitably beautiful, coy and sentimental. The servants get some of the best lines, notably Julian Wilson (Fag) and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford (Lucy) who, while too seldom on stage, are worth the wait.

But even with hacking and slashing Sheridan’s insanely long script, Circa’s attractive, well acted and directed production still feels too long at two and a half hours (including the interval).


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Problematical imprecision

Review by Matthew Wagner 07th Aug 2006

Sheridan’s The Rivals has given the world the wonderfully outrageous character of Mrs. Malaprop, whose name gave the English language the word we use for misusing and abusing big words.  And in Circa’s current production of the play, Geraldine Brophy realizes the role with suitable extravagance and humour.

The problem is that the rest of this production is rather imprecise, and as such, an audience is not offered much beyond the temporary pleasure of Brophy telling us, for example, that these young folks today are ‘as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the river Nile.’ 

The plot line follows two love stories that are complicated by disguise, deception, family (dis)approval, and vanity.  Jack wants Lydia, but Lydia only wants Jack while she can indulge her romanticized (but mistaken) belief that he is a poor ensign and they will elope together and live on love alone. And Jack’s friend Faulkland wants Julia (Lydia’s cousin), but he is too precious about her ‘signs’ of love to be paying attention to the genuine and simple affection that she offers him. 

Such a narrative, while perhaps a little tired, demands precision in all things.  In order to look at – and laugh at – these particular people behaving in these particular circumstances, we need utmost clarity on what kind of people and what kind of circumstances they are.  And it is in this precision – or lack thereof – that the broader problems of the production lie. 

These problems include the characters’ accents, many of which made their speech hard to understand.  While Nick Blake and Bruce Phillips turn in entertaining performances as, respectively, Bob Acres, the uncouth country rival for Lydia’s love, and Sir Anthony Absolute, Jack’s father, even Phillips is at times difficult to follow.  Such difficulty is even more noticeable in other characters, especially where regional accents (Irish, Cockney) were employed. 

Similarly, the broader world of the play is rather murkily established.  While John Hodgkins’ set was cleverly constructed to allow for both public and domestic locations to be realized, the world that exists immediately offstage was itself very uncertain, and such uncertainty greatly limits any ability to satirize that world.  At one point, for instance, the upstage left entrance leads further into a bedroom, and at other points it leads back out into the street, and at yet other points it seems to come from elsewhere in the house.  And all this after it is aesthetically established – by the set design itself as well as the opening scene – as being a public street in Bath.

Such details may seem negligible, or even unnoticeable while we are laughing at Mrs. Malaprop’s pretensions.  However, the precision with which the broader world of the play is established – indeed, the precision with which the entire production is executed – actually matters greatly, for (beyond relying on the outrageousness of Mrs. Malaprop), it is such precision that makes a comedy of manners like The Rivals work.


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A rollicking Rivals revival

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 04th Aug 2006

The last time The Rivals was presented in Wellington in 1982 at Downstage you never felt that you were anywhere near the beautiful city of Bath where Sheridan’s comedy takes place. With a backdrop of the magnificent Royal Crescent there’s no mistaking where you are in the thoroughly enjoyable and very traditional revival that Ken Blackburn has directed at Circa.

There is no gimmickry to distract our attention such as the velocipede and mechanical dog that got in the way of the play in 1982. And all the bowing and curtseying, the flicking of fans and the general 18th century carry-on that often passes for style have been kept to a minimum. John Hodgkins’s simple, attractive and practical settings allow the play to flow easily from scene to scene while Gillie Coxhill’s gorgeous costumes delight the eye with their colour and style.

The success of The Rivals rests on Sheridan’s use of the comic possibilities arising from the conflict between the desire of parents to arrange marriages for their sons and daughters and the new-fangled idea encouraged by the reading of romantic novels that the off-spring can choose their own lovers. As Sir Anthony Absolute says a circulating library is an ever-green tree of diabolical knowledge.

The comic possibilities are seized and transcended by the older generation in two golden comic performances by Bruce Phillips as Sir Anthony and Geraldine Brophy as the Queen of the Dictionary, that old weather-beaten she-dragon, Mrs Malaprop.

Bruce Phillips makes Sir Anthony a clear descendant of a randy old Restoration fop who thinks he’s not too past it to woo the lovely Lydia Languish for himself rather than his son. Whether he is gently waving his gout-ridden foot in excitement or raising his walking stick suggestively in the air or winding himself up into an apoplectic fit, Phillips, who was in the 1982 Downstage production, is a const ant delight.

And so too is Geraldine Brophy who sails magnificently through the play like a larger version of the tiny storm-tossed sailing ship that is in the tidal wave of her wig. Whether nearly succumbing to an attack of the vapours or unknowingly dropping her cargo of misused words she nails the comedy with deadly accuracy.

This is not to suggest that the younger generation lets the side down. Sarah Somerville as Lydia Languish and Narelle Ahrens as Julia Melville are no languishing heroines but sparky women, while Julian Wilson is a lively presence as the servant Fag without stooping to camp. His master, Captain Jack Absolute, is a strong presence as played by Aaron Ward and Stephen Butterworth makes the self-tormenting bore Faulkland interesting and funny, while Gerald Bryan (also in the 1982 version), though not very Irish, is a dignified Sir Lucius O’Trigger.

As Mrs Malaprop would say it is a pineapple of a production.


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Stylish but why?

Review by John Smythe 30th Jul 2006

The trick with a classic is to revive it – and maybe refocus or reinterpret it – when its timeless and universal themes are apropos once more. Otherwise it can only be historically interesting ‘museum theatre’ that allows local thespians to showcase their theatrical skills while remaining unlikely to touch the lives of their audiences.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals is the fourth Circa One show in a row to revisit classical work in some way.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (April – May) offered a timely reminder of the value systems the USA is built on, and continues to live by. Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s The Underpants (May – June) shifted the focus to the ephemeral nature of fame while retaining its critique of moral rectitude, and the repression and hypocrisy that inevitably follow. Paul Jenden’s TROY The Musical (June – July) reminded us war is not a game and delivered four abiding home truths.

But if Sheridan’s celebrated comedy of manners about romantic love versus imposed match-making has anything to say to us now, I missed it. And doesn’t doing it ‘straight’ – replicating the look and feel of 1775 – contradict its original purpose for being, which was to expose and send up the vain preoccupations of the very audiences it sought to attract? It was extremely contemporary theatre in its time and if it doesn’t resonate strongly with us now, what’s the point?

Even with the excellent cast and design team director Ken Blackburn has assembled for this production, is simply showcasing their undoubted skills to no greater purpose enough? The Ballet may get away with offering dance for dance’s sake (see my review of Trinity), but I thought theatre had long-since grown out of displaying acting for acting’s sake. [If you disagree on this, or any other point, please use the ‘comment’ function below to challenge me.]

Actually The Rivals was by no means an instant hit when it premiered at Drury Lane and its subsequent popularity may well belong to a time when the main attraction of going to the theatre was to watch one’s favourite actors perform with style. And perhaps in times less characterised by information overload, the mentally unchallenged leisure classes appreciated complex plots for their own sakes too.

Briefly, the hopelessly romantic Lydia Languish (Sarah Somerville) resists the match her aunt Mrs Malaprop (Geraldine Brophy) and Sir Anthony Absolute (Bruce Phillips) want her to make with Sir Anthony’s heir, Captain Jack Absolute (Aaron Ward). She sees greater virtue and adventure in eloping with penniless Ensign Beverly, unaware that he is simply a fiction Jack has personified in order to win her affections.

Meanwhile Jack’s friend Faulkland (Stephen Butterworth), a hypercritical, ultra-conservative, would-be control-freak with a heart of fluff, is his own worst enemy in his attempts to retain the affections of Julia Melville (Narelle Ahrens), Lydia’s friend and Sir Antony’s ward.

Also rivals for Lydia’s hand are country bumpkin Bob Acres (Nick Blake), a comic figure for his attempts to adopt more upper class manners, and Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Gerald Bryan), a devious Irishman who fondly believes the clandestine love letters he is receiving from “Dahlia” are penned by Lydia, whereas Mrs M is their perpetuator.

Without managing to offer any insightful critique of deception’s tangled webs and their consequences, this convoluted plot – delivered as much, if not more, through exposition than action – takes its characters through lamely motivated contrivance and connivance without changing them perceptibly, rendering the play largely devoid of dramatic purpose. En route there is very little at stake for the central characters, or if there is they don’t seem to care. (By comparison Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, to take just one example of a light entertainment with comedy to the fore, puts its characters in extreme jeopardy, requiring them to get things right on pain of death.)

An impassioned diatribe from Sir Anthony won Phillips a round of applause on opening night because, for a moment at least, someone seemed truly committed to something, even though it apparently had no effect on his son. Very late in the game Julia is sincerely upset at a foolish deceit Faulkland has perpetrated, and – with a duel in the offing – Bob Acres is suddenly in genuine fear of his life. These moments are small oases of human truth in a vast desert of pretension, albeit stylishly presented.

For their parts, Somerville and Ward articulate Lydia and Jack with smooth equanimity while Ahrens and Butterworth manage more heartfelt light and shade with Julia and Faulkland.

On the comic side, the language-mangling delights of Brophy’s wondrously coiffured and abundantly comported Mrs Malaprop, the hypertensive machinations of Julian Wilson’s Fag (Jack’s manservant), and the sly deviations of Lyndee Jane Rutherford’s Lucy (Lydia’s maid) are a joy to observe when they’re on.

Blake enriches his Bob Acres with great physicality. Philip Grieve’s Thomas may ‘Mummerset’ his lines too heavily at times but his David (Bob’s ‘boy’) grounds events in an important moment of sanity, as things threaten to get out of hand. Bryan chooses the low-key option with O’Trigger which – while avoiding the stage Oirish cliché that saw its first player replaced after opening night at Drury Lane – does little to wind up the dramatic tension.

Gillie Coxill’s exquisite costumes add texture and lustre to the overall style, while John Hodgkins’ fold-out set, backed by an ingeniously contrived projection of the Crescent in Bath, and Philip Blackburn’s acutely strategic lighting, enhance the visual pleasure.

The epilogue, spoken by Lucy, asserts that if some moral is to be coaxed from the play it is that “Love gilds the scene, and women guide the plot”. I can’t say that was an “Oh, now I get it!” moment for me. I can’t even recall a moment when anything like true love broke through (probably because it’s not there in the play).

What I’m left with is an appreciation of theatrical skill and style, and the question I began with: why this play now?


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