The Rivals

On Saturday I met up with my sister and my former flatmate to see the play The Rivals at the Haymarket. I knew nothing about this play directed by Peter Hall and I have to admit us three took the average age of the matinée audience down a notch.

The play is written in 1775 by Richard Sheridan (He of School of Scandal fame) and set in Bath. It’s a fairly simple comedy of errors. The young and wealthy Lydia is being courted by Captain Jack Absolute who pretends to be ‘Ensign Beverley’ to please Lydia’s romantic notions of being with a poor man against her guardian, her aunt’s will.

Her aunt brilliantly played by Penelope Keith is a brilliant character: Mrs Malaprop. She uses certain words in her speech that only sound like the intended words but with different meaning: this is the character where the word malapropism stems from.

One day Jack’s father Sir Anthony Baronet  (Peter Bowles) comes to Bath to suggest Lydia and Jack should be wed. Mrs Malaprop thinks this is a much better match than the poor Ensign – also because she fears Lydia knows too much about the love-affair Mrs M is having with a certain Sir Lucius O’ Trigger.

As these were the days before email and text messaging, communication was mostly done through letters delivered by maids and servants. (For our younger readers: letters are these pieces of paper that people have written messages on, usually in pen.) The maid in this play earns a good wage delivering the messages for both couples and takes joy in creating a little confusion: she told Sir O’ Trigger that he’s communicating with the young Lydia rather than her aunt…

Confusion starts when Jack first refuses to marry the woman his father has chosen, conveniently enough his dad refuses to tell him who it is until he agrees, as his heart belongs to Lydia. Then Lydia finds out who she is to marry and is upset about Jack’s lie about being Beverly. This part I found really annoying: so she gets to be with the one she loves but then has a sulk. It also did not help that the actress playing Lydia was pretty wooden in her speech. For the foreign speaker, old-fashioned English is much easier to understand when it is spoken the way it was meant: the context becomes clearer. (In the same way that Shakespeare is to be watched/ listened to, not read.)

An excellent actress was the girl who played Jo, Lydia’s cousin and whose name I cannot find anywhere. She and her boyfriend Falkland fight along as a satire on romantic dramas at the time. He continuously doubts and tests her true love until she finally has enough and walks away…so they both realise they belong together: Ahhh true love.

Meanwhile O’Trigger and another comedic character of Bob Acers are disturbed by the news Lydia is to marry as both claim her love, though the latter secretly (otherwise they would have to fight each other). O’Trigger eggs Acers on to challenge his rival to a duel and he will do the same. So Jack/Beverly, his second man Falkland, O’Trigger and Acers all turn up to duel.

In the final scene all the women rock up to forgive their erring men before they all start fighting each other and suddenly it becomes clear who is who and who is in love with who. Poor Mrs Malaprop gets put down for being old by O’Trigger -ageism is ageless. But happy endings all around? Of course!

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