The Country Wife at Chichester Festival Theatre

Was it a mistake to modernise The Country Wife?


Click here to go to see The Country Wife reviewed at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube 

Lex Shrapnel and other members of the cast in The Country Wife at Chichester Festival theatre. Photo- Manuel Harlan
Lex Shrapnel and other members of the cast in The Country Wife at Chichester Festival theatre. Photo- Manuel Harlan

Some of London’s high class women want sex but not with their unattractive, sometimes abusive husbands. A young man wants sex without commitment so targets married women. How to get the two together while keeping up the image of respectability? The answer: He pretends to be impotent.

The shock caused by the open and judgement-free discussion of sex, particularly by women, when it was first performed, is different to the shock The Country Wife causes today.

The play was first performed in 1675 but many of its elements could form the plot of a play for today, which may be why director Jonathan Munby has shifted the action to modern London.

However I can’t help feeling it would have been better to leave it in the context of its own time because the problem with updating the setting to modern London is not that people’s behaviour has changed- it’s that attitudes have changed. Men patronizing or abusing women doesn’t sit well today as a subject for a jolly romp.

Setting it in the time of the #metoo movement means it’s inevitable that we will question the sexist, controlling, even abusive, men more than we would if it was simply of its time. A production set in the modern day could still be funny but it would need to be darker than this in order to give us some acknowledgement that we are looking at these people through 21st century eyes. Instead, the production remains in Carry On mode, except for a hint that commitment-free sex may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Also, the plot struggles to work in a mode setting. Today’s well off women, if they want to cuckold their husbands, are usually independent enough financially and in lifestyle to be able to do it. Men or women who want sex without commitment only have to visit Ashley Madison or swipe on Tinder.

Susannah Fielding in The Country Wife at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo- Manuel Harlan
Susannah Fielding in The Country Wife. Photo- Manuel Harlan

A lot of the verbal humour hasn’t aged well either but the cast throw themselves into it, especially Scott Karim as Sparkish, a would-be one-of-the-lads who thinks he’s much wittier than he is, and Susannah Fielding, hilarious as the naïve wife of the title. All the cast are excellent but Lex Shrapnel in the central role of Horner and John Hodgkinson as the vicious but foolish cuckold Pinchwife deserve a special mention. The laughter quota is helped by a lot of French farce style going in and out of doors.

Although I’m dubious about modernising the setting, I did like Soutra Gilmour’s black-and-white set and costumes- the kind of exaggerated outfits that you wouldn’t normally see outside of a fashion designer’s catwalk contrast cleverly with the naive country woman’s colourful everyday clothes.

It’s worth saying that, lthough The Country Wife seems like a celebration of sexual liberation, two of the characters, Alithea played by a pitch perfect Jo Herbert and Harcourt played by a very amusing Ashley Zhangazha, are driven by romantic love, suggesting that Wycherley didn’t think all men and women were thinking only of sex.

It was an enjoyable enough evening but I can’t see this production lingering in my memory.

The Country Wife ends its run at the Chichester Festival Theatre on 7 July 2018

Watch the YouTube review of The Country Wife at Chichester below

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