Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mrs Malaprop

'The Rivals'
"Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" 

says Mrs Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play 'The Rivals', and beautifully mis-spoken it was too by veteran actress Penelope Keith. Deriving from the French mal à propos, Sheridan wasn't the first to use malapropisms - the comic effect of substituting for the correct word one which sounds the same but has a different meaning (Shakespeare used it a lot: Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is a prime offender), and certainly not the last (Archie Bunker from the American sitcom 'All In The Family' used them to manage to make his offensive comments funny: "Off-the-docks Jews" - i.e. Orthodox Jews.) One of my early favourites was used in the Australian sitcom 'Number 96' ("as they say in the classifieds"); Ringo Starr's own became 'A Hard Day's Night'. Perhaps the most infamous recent examples come from ex-president George W. Bush, such as this one: "Mathematics are one of the fundamentaries of educationalizing our youths" - enlivened with made-up words.

But back to Sheridan, writing 'The Rivals' in 1775, and setting it in Bath of that year, by then the beautifully renovated town of Beau Nash and architects John Wood and his son, with the Palladian-style parades in honey-coloured limestone, the Assembly Rooms for those coming to 'drink the waters', the pleasure gardens and the Royal Crescent. The production I saw last night at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (built 1720)had a simple set based on the Crescent. It was nothing fancy, but it worked. 

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
The theatre itself is another of those spendid refurbs of Georgian and Victorian theatres that are found all over London, presumably kept going by the eager audiences that fill them every night. Live theatre is extraordinarily popular here. They like a good play. 

'The Rivals' is indeed a good play, a funny 18th century comedy of manners, set evocatively in Bath and sending up the langour of lovers and the silliness of 'novels for young ladies'. The central theme is young love thwarted by stuffy old relatives, but with assumed identities and intercepted notes adding to the confusion. Sounds a little Shakesperean, and no doubt it is. Mrs Malaprop's verbal mistakes recall the character Dogberry in 'Much Ado Without Nothing'.

And so to the cast: audiences are coming to see the present production because of the pairing of Penelope Keith (as Mrs Malaprop) and Peter Bowles (as Sir Anthony Absolute) those much-loved actors who played together for years in the television series 'To The Manor Born', where they portrayed a pair of tentative middle aged lovers. Their final kiss at the end of the play drew a good-hearted cheer from the audience. It is apparently the first time they have played together on stage. I like Sheridan, it was great to see these two veterans in action, and some members of the rest of the cast were excellent (especially Robyn Addison who played Lydia Languish very comically - in her professional stage debut); but I must admit that I like a little more life and outrageousness in my Sheridan. Others have praised the traditional staging, tight direction (Sir Peter Hall) and emphasis on the physical comedy, and it was very pleasant. But for a really memorable night out, how about a little daring?
Penelope & Peter in 'To The Manor Born'
Penelope Keith was born in 1940, making her 70 this year. You'll remember her (unless you are unfortunately too young) as Margo Leadbetter in 'The Good Life''. 'To The Manor Born' ran from 1979 to 1981 and at times drew audiences of 24 million viewers. I thought Margo was very funny indeed, in a show that was otherwise a bit sanctimonious; I found 'To The Manor Born' a little too generous to an unsympathetic type. But hey - I can hardly set myself up as a television critic at this late date, since I abandoned TV watching about 15 years ago. 

Peter Bowles was born in 1936 (so 74 now). In addition to the urbane character in 'To The Manor Born', he's remembered for 'Rumpole of the Bailey' where he played Guthrie Featherstone, QC, MP, Horace Rumpole's social-climbing head of chambers who becomes Justice Featherstone. That's about the extent of my ex-television knowledge, but I must say that in his time Peter Bowles was a very handsome man.

Pre-theatre dinner was in Jermyn Street at Rowley's, well-decorated, efficient (in London!), conveniently located and good plain food. It is known for its unlimited french fries, but we didn't avail ourselves of those. My dining and theatre-going companion is a lecturer in post-graduate IP law, and spent dinner telling me that the life of a lecturer is so much harder than the life of a student (what about la vie boheme?) Actually, I believe her. I shared my concern that I wasn't getting anything much done, essay-wise, and she repeated what I've heard from my own lecturers - relax, we don't want to see anything until next year! Of course, having been a lecturer myself, I understand wanting to put off 'marking season'. Nevertheless, I have big plans to get started on an essay on the subject of Schopenhauer's views on music - I think this may mean that I have to spend some time listening to 'Tristan & Isolde'. Tough eh?

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