A playwright once said to me – only half in jest – that much drama can be reduced to two questions: who’s sleeping with whom and who’s paying for all this? In The Country Wife William Wycherley doesn’t even proceed to the second question. His sex-obsessed Restoration romp is entirely fuelled by lust and jealousy, with scandal being the big bogeyman. Morals don’t come into it, it’s getting caught that counts, as Wycherley combines end-of-the-pier bawdiness with mordant satire of a cynical society, rotten to the core and driven by gossip, spin and cover-up. You can see why Jonathan Kent has launched his company’s season at this theatre with Wycherley’s comedy; you can see too why his production hints at contemporary relevance, with the randy youths sporting jeans beneath their frock-coats.
It’s a handsome, swaggering production fuelled by wild energy and a hint of hysteria. Fashionable London here is a gaudy, self-obsessed place running on frantic deception, with the whole pretence permanently on the edge of collapse. Fair enough. But the production, if you’ll pardon the expression, peaks too soon. The performances begin in top gear and consequently have nowhere to go, so that the show becomes manic and, as time goes on, increasingly laboured. And the high style of the production also obscures some of the real nastiness on show. When the eponymous country wife almost blows the whole pretence in front of everyone we don’t feel the cold panic that should flood the stage.
There are still laughs to be had and performances to savour. Toby Stephens as Horner, the lecherous rogue who pretends impotence in order to dupe husbands, strides about the stage, eyes ablaze, crotch to the fore, exhilarated by his own duplicity. Patricia Hodge is splendid as Lady Fidget, combining perfect poise with urgent lust and at one point executing a backbend that suggests her ladyship has not neglected her yoga. And David Haig is delightful as Pinchwife, the newly married man whose desperate attempts to lock his lusty country wife away from Horner’s attentions only inflame the couple’s desires. Haig finds tremendous comedy in Pinchwife’s rising anguish. But even he drives over the top too soon. By the end you feel it is not just the characters who have worked too hard for their pleasures.