“A school for scandal! Tell me, I beseech you, needs there a school, this modish art to teach you?”
Pre-show announcements are not new to our time. Director Antoni Cimolino’s production of R.B. Sheridan’s The School for Scandal at the Stratford Festival begins with an old one – a prologue written by the actor-manager David Garrick to introduce the play at its premiere in 1777.
Long-time Stratford company member Geraint Wyn Davies speaks it while showing us something ridiculous he’s stumbled upon on social media on his smartphone (before asking us to turn ours off).
A school for malicious gossip and fake news? No, of course, we don’t need one. We’ve got plenty of apps for that.
Wyn Davies soon enough slips on a wig and into the part of Sir Peter Teazle – an old man who’s made the mistake, he keeps telling us in self-deprecating asides, of marrying a young wife.
Lady Teazle (Shannon Taylor) is from the country, and her husband had hoped to keep her cheaply. Instead, she’s joined the in-crowd in the city and is now a “lady of taste” with monthly bills to match.
That in-crowd includes Lady Sneerwell (Maev Beaty) and Joseph Surface (Tyrone Savage), who – with the help of a gossip columnist named Snake (Anusree Roy) – are placing blind gossip items to try to keep Teazle’s ward Maria (Monice Peter) and Joseph’s indebted-but-decent brother Charles (Sébastien Heins) apart.
Meanwhile, in another household, Sir Oliver Surface (Joseph Ziegler), Joseph and Charles’s uncle, has returned from India and and decided to go undercover in order to find out which of his nephews should be his heir.
There’s a lot of plot in this comedy, and Sheridan seems to surf from one storyline to the next at first, but Cimolino’s production is clear and confident and everything comes together at the end like a well-wrought 18th-century episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Additional characters include a trio of gossips played with comic skill by Brigit Wilson, Tom Rooney and Rod Beattie in wild wigs by designer Julie Fox; they show how lies spread not only through those who like them (on Facebook) but those who share them with indignation (on Twitter).
Through projections in between scenes, Cimolino keeps drawing parallels between the time of Sheridan (who owned a newspaper in which he reviewed his own plays under a pseudonym) and our own socially saturated one. Even the real news of 1777 doesn’t seem that far away from 2017: Americans charting a separate path in the world, right or wrong? Russia annexing Crimea?
The director even has Mrs. Candour drop in a reference to Sean Spicer at one point – though, oddly, it’s the only update made to Sheridan's dialogue in the production.
The rest of the metatheatricality is Sheridan’s, with characters regularly speaking to the audience. Wyn Davies is the master of this, giving one of his most charmingly permeable performances ever. As the bad Surface brother, Savage is the only one to overplay these asides. He might transfer a little of his over-the-top energy to Heins, who is likeable but awfully laid-back.
It’s really the Teazles who anchor this sprawling comedy, their mismatched marriage bringing a bit of emotional reality to this comedy of manners. Wyn Davies makes touching how much Sir Peter truly wants to connect with his wife, and Taylor does a fine job of making Lady Teazle seems like she’s only teasing when delivering such zingers as, “If you wanted authority over me, you should have adopted me and not married me.”
The scene where the two must face the reality about their relationship is farcical, but it works on a deeper level, too. I dare say I’ve never seen someone act humiliation as powerfully as Taylor in this moment.
I’ve somehow got to the end of this review neglecting to mention Tony Award winner Brent Carver, who plays a steward named Rowley in his own inimitably otherworldly way. That gives you an idea of the depth of acting talent that Stratford’s artistic director has summoned for the sole show he’s directing this season.
The School for Scandal continues to Oct. 21 (stratfordfestival.ca).Report Typo/Error