School for Scandal

Richard Sheridan’s comedy School for Scandal has been revived at the Barbican by Deborah Warner, the Barbican’s artistic associate.

Set in 1777, the play concerns group of well-to-do in society who enjoy getting together and gossiping about their friends who aren’t present. Some just enjoy the telling of the story, others have an ulterior motive: Lady Sneerwell plants gossip about Charles Surface so he will  lose his girl Maria, and his brother Joseph Surface helps Lady Sneerwell to win Maria. When the Surface’s wealthy uncle turns up from the East- Indies, he goes undercover to discover who of the two brother should be his heir. Soon he unravels reputation and exposes genuine character.

The subject of gossip is still relevant, as demonstrated just before the play starts: the audience is watched by the cast, pointed at and at occassions snapped by a camera on mobile phones.

Warner has chosen for modern staging: the set is a variation on a blackbox theatre, mixed with a modern take on the traditional backdrops. The backdrops are black and white drawings, that are pulled up and/or suspended in air when appropriate. The concept is played with: most memorably the entrance of the wealthy uncle that is highlighted by a huge drawn arrow.  Every ” Location, Act and Scene” is also written on posters and displayed to the audience.

Scene-changes are done while loud modern music blasts and words are projected. Unfortunately the music was so thunderingly loud  in comparison to the dialogue, that it made the scene-changes almost an event in itself. Perhaps that was the aim, though it seemed a little distracting.

Some scenes were solely lit by multiple side-lights, that created that open blackbox theatre feel. Yet as not the whole stage is lit, position becomes key and some actors delivered their lines with their face in darkness: this is where the older actors showed their experience and found the light in each scene.

Costume is alternatively in traditional 18th century costume and modern clothing. The opening scene sees Lady Sneerwell getting changed from modern clothing into her gorgeous dress: symbolism of what is behind the facade? Perhaps. Like Charles Surface, a hard-partying socialite who is dressed in jeans, trainers and just a nice 18th Century jacket: he doesn’t seem to care much about appearances.

The only thing that grated a little, is the main reason the play has been troublesome in the past: the character of Moses, the friendly Jew. Jews aren’t portrayed favourably and the difference it makes with say Avenue Q, which is really un-PC, is the fact that this comedy wasn’t written as a (modern) parody. Personally I was also a little disappointed by the lack of racial diversity amongst the main characters in this modern setting, which could have perhaps counterbalanced this issue. This production has tried to solved it by making Moses a very comedic character, so kudos to the actor who gets the laughs of the tentative audience.

Still the company worked with the existing material and bar some staging issues that can be tweaked ( we sat next to a man with a notebook and a pass around his neck, presumably making notes.) have made an entertaining production to watch.

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