The Way of the World review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘a slick, handsome production’
Money can’t buy you love – but it can certainly get you a temporary imitation of it.
In William Congreve’s dazzling, intricately plotted Restoration comedy, hearts come garlanded not with flowers but with deeds and contracts, and in the marriage market, people – particularly women – all too easily become property.
James Macdonald’s slick, period-dressed production feels wonderfully fresh, as if the director had approached it like a new play. Its glittering aphorisms are delivered with clarity and ease, the thrust and parry of its social and sexual game-playing and its rampant materialism immediately familiar. At its centre is a couple struggling, in a world full of deal-brokering, back-stabbing and exploitation, to find a way to be together in a lasting partnership of equals.
Anna Fleischle’s wood-panelled set, with its hidden doorways, makes a cunning backdrop to the subterfuge. This is a society of surfaces, where wigs and paint imperfectly disguise bad behaviour, and perfume covers the stench of betrayal. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s gaddish Mirabell and Tom Mison’s silkily poisonous, misogynistic Fainall are preeningly elegant, all heels, swishing frockcoats and tight breeches.
Millamant – in love with Mirabell, but at risk of losing her fortune, held by her ageing aunt Lady Wishfort, if she marries him – has keen intelligence and a waspish wit, but in Justine Mitchell’s shrewd performance, she, too, is prone to posturing and pretension.
Fleischle gets her up like a toilet-roll holder dolly, with huge balloon sleeves and green ruffles. Fisayo Akinade’s scene-stealing fop Witwoud is upholstered in garish florals, his brattish cohort Petulant (Simon Manyonda) a small-time rebel in black leather.
When the mask slips, things get ugly. The face-off between Millamant and her jealous love rival Mrs Marwood (glossy, brittle Jenny Jules) is bracingly nasty, bristling with barbed manners, fluttering fans and bared teeth. And nowhere is artifice more cruel than in Haydn Gwynne’s portrayal of Lady Wishfort.
Too old to be considered a valuable commodity, she longs for male approval, not just from erotic and romantic hunger, but because it’s the only means available to her of reasserting her own worth and reputation. At her toilette, she’s like a camp, fading theatrical dame; her face, plastered in make-up, is that of a tragic clown. Gwynne is hilarious, but watching Wishfort being fooled and manipulated is also deeply uncomfortable and desperately sad. And the sneering dismissal of a mature woman as a disposable figure of fun hasn’t, more’s the pity, dated at all.
The play rewards Millamant and Mirabell with eventual union – a moving moment of glowing sincerity here. But for everyone else, the future is uncertain. It’s a mark of the skill and verve of Macdonald’s production that when the laughter fades, we too are left decidedly unsettled.