Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
Through Jan. 12
William Wycherley’s Restoration sex comedy “The Country Wife” might have been shocking in 1675, but its tale of lustful men and wanton women mocking the veneer of polite society is played for rollicking laughs in director Jonathan Kent’s new production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Cynical and bawdy, it assumes that every wife is ripe for plucking and every husband is destined to be a cuckold. It could be taken as misogyny except that the women give as well as the men and the betrayed husbands are a pious bore and a jealous buffoon.
Dressed in blue jeans and frock coats to blur the time frame, three young men — Horner (Toby Stephens), Harcourt (John Hopkins) and Dorilant (Tristan Beint) — spend their time drinking beer, playing pool and planning their next conquests.
Horner devises a scheme whereby his doctor will declare him a eunuch following a bout of the pox, the idea being that husbands will trust him with their wives, leaving him to exploit the circumstances as he will. Invariably, the objects of his attention are all too willing to enjoy the deception.
Chief among these is Lady Fidget (Patricia Hodge), who’s always on the lookout for a wayward male and the opportunity to test his honor, as Wycherley puts it. Horner is up for anyone at any time, and he also is particularly taken with Margery (Fiona Glascott), the pretty, giddy young wife of a furiously overprotective older man named Pinchwife (David Haig).
Margery is from the country and longs for the attention of the city gallants, while her husband goes to great lengths to keep her away from temptation. Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea (Elisabeth Dermot Walsh), is engaged to marry a foppish dimwit named Sparkish (Jo Stone-Fewings), though his friend Harcourt is doing his best to displace him.
Kent, in the first production of his yearlong season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, moves things along at a gloriously lusty pace. Paul Brown’s sets involve plenty of doors for miscreants to dive through and hide behind while the actors relish Wycherley’s ribald dialogue, which is rich with euphemisms for sexual dalliance and doesn’t sound dated at all.
All the performances are entertaining. Stephens is a touch too cocky for a man pretending to be a eunuch, but he’s full of dash and eager to please. Hodge makes Lady Fidget a sly and knowing conspirator, and Walsh and Hopkins contribute some sense of propriety with great poise and charm.
The real crowd-pleasers, however, are Glascott as the winsomely irritating country wife and Haig as her combustible green-eyed spouse. Glascott is sexy, innocent and maddening in a role that has been played on the English stage by Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and on TV by Helen Mirren.
Haig is a master of farce, and he frets, blusters and comes as close to exploding as John Cleese at his best. It’s a witty and boisterous performance that will send packed audiences out onto the Haymarket laughing happily well past Christmas.
THE COUNTRY WIFE
Theatre Royal Haymarket Company
Playwright: William Wycherley
Director: Jonathan Kent
Set designer: Paul Brown
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
Costume designer: Paul Brown
Music: Steven Edis
Horner: Toby Stephens
Quack: David Shaw-Parker
Boy: Timothy Bateson
Sir Jaspar Fidget: Nicholas Day
Lady Fidget: Patricia Hodge
Dainty Fidget: Lucy Tregear
Mrs. Squeamish: Liz Crowther
Harcourt: John Hopkins
Dorilant: Tristan Beint
Sparkish: Jo Stone-Fewings
Pinchwife: David Haig
Mrs. Margery Pinchwife: Fiona Glascott
Ms. Alithea: Elisabeth Dermot Walsh
Lucy: Catherine Bailey
Old Lady Squeamish: Janet Brown