We caught The Rivals playing at the Abbey last night. I’m not sure quite what to make of it. Featuring characters with wits as sharp as their swords, a fantastically ‘theatrical’ set design and a solid cast, I couldn’t help agreeing with the author’s opinion as I’d read it in the Prologue earlier that day: the play is just too long. Apparently when it first appeared, the play was less than a success with audiences – being considered too long. Apparently Sheridan went back and significantly re-edited the play, and that is the version we are left with today. I would suggest that it is still just a tad too long, but only a little bit. Still, it was an entertaining evening sparkling with humour, flair and vitality, and there have been far worse productions this year. So, what did I make of George Washington’s favourite play?
Written over 200 years ago, this production comes with an introduction that cleverly eschews the whole ‘it’s still relevent today’ schtick that too often accompanies such established pieces. An audience will recognise a piece that resonates without needing to be informed. From there on out, the play is firmly committed to being a solid piece of entertainment. History and language buffs will be delighted to note that the play popularised the term malapropism in possibly the play’s most wonderful character, Mrs. Malaprop. Don’t worry, she’s joined by Captain Absolute (sounds like a low-rent superhero) and Ms. Languish. as you can imagine, the play wears its colours on its sleeve.
It’s this frankness, coupled with a sparkling sense of humour that still shines even today, that sustains the play over its two-hour-plus-interval run time. The play excels at wordplay and the cast execute it with uniform skill. The main problem comes from the show’s length, coupled with the plot mechanics. Even two hundred years ago the ‘love interrupted by a case of mistaken identity which resolves itself by pairing off the characters’ subgenre was quite crowded, but today the plot doesn’t really hold up at all – if only because we’ve seen it dozens and dozens of time. The Rivals manages to transcend a somewhat clunky plot through sheer force of will – you know how each storyline will resolve itself from the get-go, so there’s no emotional investment, which perhaps works almost as well, allowing the audience to simply enjoy the dialogue.
As with almost all Abbey productions, the set design, lighting and technical aspects are all top-notch. The set is cleverly designed to remind you that you are watching a play at the Abbey, and various metafictional elements creep in (but not enough to ruin it for those just coming to enjoy a romantic comedy). It lacks the power that defined The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, possibly the best play I’ve seen at the Abbey this year, but perhaps it is meant to be. As the introduction reminded us, a play doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘relevent’. Sometimes it’s enough for the play to be fun.