The School for Scandal

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Barbican Theatre
(2011)

The School for Scandal production photo

This one will divide opinion.

Deborah Warner seems intent on provoking extreme reaction by contrasting the period and manners of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal with the greatest excesses of the 21st Century.

Before the play even starts, early arrivals are assailed by loud rock music, interspersed with classical and Bollywood tunes. These are the backdrop to strutting, oddly-garbed models, who perfectly set the scene for what will follow, before becoming supernumeraries and stagehands.

The staging itself is Brechtian with scene-signs and announcements, more battering rock entr'actes and Jeremy Herbert's minimal scenery, based around cartoon drawing rooms and sparsely placed furnishings. Even the costumes are far from sacrosanct, modishly mixing lavish ancient with brash modern, sometimes on the same person at the same time.

Strangely, underlying this post-modern experimentation is a pretty faithful rendition of Sheridan's timeless text and sentiments. That is the case even when the behaviour and body language, especially of the young, is from today. That deliberately clashes with actions of the more conservative characters who could have stepped straight out of the original production close to 250 years ago.

It works though. Throughout a long performance, the interest never lets up as we observe the wits behaving badly and await surprises that seem almost inevitable, so well are the characters portrayed. It helps to have a well-balanced cast, led by the redoubtable Alan Howard as Sir Peter Teazle, perpetually warring with Katherine Parkinson playing his combative wife and demonstrating her usual fine sense of comic timing.

The inevitable marital difficulties of an innocent old fool and a bored young beauty are exacerbated by the behaviour of a pair of deeply contrasting brothers.

A quietly malevolent Aidan McArdle's Joseph Surface is a puritanical hypocrite respected by all. His younger brother Charles, a rakish libertine whose only redeeming quality is an overpowering urge to be generous.

In this latter role much to the audience's delight, Leo Bill is asked to go way over the top and, in an art auction, some (but not all) might feel that the excess finally stretches credibility a little too far.

It takes the subterfuge of their uncle, the excellent John Shrapnel as Sir Oliver, to bring matters to a satisfying dénouement following a second half that relies far less on the shock of modernity and noticeably more on Sheridan's comic genius.

It is impossible to forget a Deborah Warner production, with her Medea, Julius Caesar and operatic Turn of the Screw all theatrical landmarks.

There is little doubt that open-minded visitors to this 3¼ hour School for Scandal will also recall it a decade from now with great fondness and a secret smile of thanks to such a brave and adventurous auteur. Make sure that you are one of those lucky souls.

Running until 18th June

Reviewer: Philip Fisher