The Rivals at the Arcola
Comparing 18th century comic drama to its purely chronological predecessors in Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson is much like comparing Victorian penny dreadfuls to the complete works of the Romantic poets: it is a true test of suspension of one’s disbelief to imagine how popular appeal should drive the state of literature so swiftly from one to the other.
The original performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals was met with an overwhelmingly negative reaction – the play having aged so poorly, it’s a true wonder that Selina Cadell should wish for another attempt to breathe life into the original script. A script whose characters lay so hidden behind layers upon layers of façade in the typical Georgian fashion that no human should remain underneath; whose plot panders so much to cliché and nonsensical that any one of the possible alternative endings it teases would by far be the more desirable; whose humour stumbles aimlessly between vulgar and snobbish; and whose thematic gestures are so periodically typical that one might not be at fault to suggest it a clumsy modern parody.
To Cadell’s credit, there are many features of Arcola Theatre’s production of The Rivals that extend the enjoyment of the play far beyond what one may think possible having read the script. Cadell brings a modern, albeit hit-and-miss, humour to the piece where it originally did not allow for. Likewise Emma Bailey’s set design is both appropriate and unique, and Eliza Thompson’s musical direction adds a series much-needed jaunty interludes.
It is ultimately the acting that most polarises the piece. While there are some absolutely fantastic stand-out performances – among them Nicholas Le Provost and Iain Batchelor’s portrayal of father and son Anthony and Jack Absolute – there was an equal number of moments where pace lulled, accents slipped and lines were dropped. While a select few members of The Rivals company certainly show phenomenal potential in their ability to carry a real performance, it is Cadell’s absurd decision to reanimate the heartless, headless corpse of Sheridan’s script that holds the troupe back.
The Rivals is on at Arcola Theatre until 15th November 2014, for further information or to book visit here.