The Way of the World at the Donmar Warehouse
It’s often difficult to stage Restoration-era comedies such as William Congreve’s The Way of the World, written in 1700, in a way that gives clarity to the winding plots and avoids devolving into overly wordy slapstick, but James MacDonald’s direction gives this rendition an admirable lucidity. The convoluted story, concerning the machinations of Fainall (Tom Mison) to set aside his wife, and those of Mirabell (Geoffrey Streatfeild) to marry the woman he loves, all under the eye of the ageing Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne), is still unfortunately hard to follow. However, the dialogue throughout – often a clear predecessor to Oscar Wilde’s style – is delivered without pretence or showiness and sparkles wonderfully. The design of the production is well-conceived by Anna Fleischle, with its playful take on period-appropriate costumes in a handsome and versatile panelled set.
But what lets this production thrive, more than these admittedly important superficial qualities, is the surprisingly genuine emotional core. Haydn Gwynne as Lady Wishfort manages to make her campy character engaging and sympathetic by her underlying vulnerability, despite (or because of) her overdone makeup and huge wig. Geoffrey Streatfeild and Justine Mitchell as the lovers Mirabell and Millamant give a beautifully subtle picture of two people negotiating their feelings for each other amid the social expectations of their time and their peers. Their scene of lovers’ declarations is a perfect marriage of humour and tenderness. Even the irritating and bluff country squire Sir Wilful Witwoud, played with aplomb by Christian Patterson, turns out to have a heart of gold. There is, of course, plenty of straightforward comedy as well, including moments of slapstick and some wonderful performances from Fisayo Akinade as a lavishly dressed fop and Sarah Hadland as a wily maidservant.
The show’s main failing is that, despite all these attractive qualities, it does feel overly long and is far from easy to follow. It’s hard not to get lost in dense but well-crafted wordplay or drown in a sea of wit. But overall, it’s definitely a play worth seeing for its charming marriage of fast-paced repartee and emotional sincerity, performed by an excellent ensemble cast.
Photo: Johan Persson
The Way of the World is at Donmar Warehouse from 29th March until 26th May 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch an interview with the cast here: