STRATFORD, Ont. — “Tale-bearers are as bad as the tale-makers.”
So speaks the aptly named Mrs. Candour in the Stratford Festival’s stylish and enjoyable production of School For Scandal. Brigit Wilson’s engaging portrayal of this good lady may seem all fuss and fluff, with the comedy of her hairpiece furthering our enjoyment of presence here, but she’s also a character who, in her own inimitable way, injects a measure of common sense into the culture of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s evergreen comedy about gossip, greed and hypocrisy in 18th Century London.
Director Antoni Cimolino has hauled out some heavy artillery for this revival. Wilson’s is but one sterling contribution in a showcase of outstanding acting talent that is ready and willing to help an audience negotiate its way through the intricate entanglements of the plot. A further enticement to our pleasure is the undeniable relevance of School For Scandal to our present circumstances, given Sheridan’s waspishly funny evisceration of fake news as it existed back in his time. But ultimately, it is the play’s triumph as a witty character piece that has most sustained its popularity over the centuries. Cimolino is attentive to that truth. Even the most appalling inhabitants of this story prove irresistible in this welcome revival.
It is also a production rich in detail. That’s evident in the opening scene when we see Maev Beaty’s deliciously awful Lady Sneerwell in her boudoir making herself presentable for a world in which she must constantly look her best. But as the makeup is applied to a face needful of painted perfection, and the wig arranged on an unappetizing scalp, and as, once gowned, she adjusts her bosom, the play is already making a statement about its central preoccupation — the tricky dividing line between fantasy and truth.
Meanwhile the script’s rich gallery of characters start being introduced to us. As she prepares herself for the outside world, Lady Sneerwell indulges in her favourite pastime of scandal-mongering — with her fawning flunky, Snake, nicely played by Anusree Roy, listening devotedly. And gradually we meet other characters — some who are accomplices of Her Ladyship in her malicious pursuits, others who are victims.
Among the latter are the aging Sir Peter Teazle and the fun-loving young wife whose spendthrift habits are causing him much misery and frustration. “The worst of it is that I love her,” moans Geraint Wyn Davies, whose funny-sad portrait of Sir Peter is one of the best things he has ever done at Stratford. Indeed, it’s in his depiction of the Teazle marriage that Sheridan’s credentials as the most humane of comic dramatists becomes evident. In this production, there’s a deftly managed moment of farce when Shannon Taylor’s delightfully feckless Lady Teazle finds herself in a compromising situation with another male and is forced to conceal herself behind a screen when her elderly spouse makes an unexpected appearance. Cimolino and his players bring off these moments with relish, and Wyn Davies in particular shows his gift for revealing a certain comic obliviousness in Sir Peter. But his performance never descends into mere caricature.
To be sure, there are some lively confrontations between husband and wife in this play, but the comedy in them is rueful. Sheridan is examining the breakdown of communication that can rupture personal relationships — and the play provides a useful reminder that 20th Century playwrights were by no means the first to venture into this field. The satire in School For Scandal can be biting, but it’s tempered by Sheridan’s own innate kindliness and his faith — with some characters at least — in reconciliation and redemption.
The roll call of enjoyable performances in this production is considerable. Among the stand-outs are Tyrone Savage, dandyish and self-serving as that hypocritical opportunist, Joseph Surface; Tom Rooney, his towering wig and comically mannered portrayal firmly reminding us that no one called Sir Benjamin Backbite should be taken seriously; Rod Beattie, a crusty walrus as Sir Benjamin’s Uncle Crabtree; Sebastien Heins, pleasantly dissipated as Joseph’s brother, Charles, an impecunious young man ready to sell off the family portraits for some ready cash; Joseph Ziegler, an oasis of normality as the wealthy uncle who decides to test the loyalty of his Surface nephews; Brent Carver, calm and collected as Sir Peter’s quietly resourceful steward.
It’s always great to have composer Berthold Carriere back at Stratford, this time bolstering the production with engaging period music Designer Julie Fox’s shape-changing set accommodates itself beautifully to the Avon Theatre stage as well as to the shimmering sensibility of the play itself. As for her costuming — well, how often do audience members leave a performance rhapsodizing about the wigs?
(School For Scandal continues to Oct. 21. Ticket information at 1 800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival