Review: The School for Scandal, Barbican

“You can indeed each fear remove,
for even scandal dies if you approve”

Commencing before the curtain ‘rises’ with a futuristic-Georgian fashion show, complete with gossiping fashionistas, it is clear from the outset that Deborah Warner’s production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal is no stately Peter Hall-esque costume piece, but rather something completely different. Employing much of the same visual language employed in her 2009 Mother Courage for the National, the Brechtian feel is very much here in the deconstructed pieces of set lying against walls, stagehands visible onstage and placards announcing the scene changes.

At a time of ever-increasing tabloid gossip, injunctions, superinjunctions and Twitter, Warner is clearly keen to draw direct comparisons between Sheridan’s Georgian London society (who presumably twittered rather than tweeted) and the shallower end of our own contemporary society obsessions with celebrity and consumerism. This is done in the most heavy-handed of ways, so the scandalous intrigue and politics that surrounds the plot of romantic entanglements, debated inheritances, saucy liaisons, unhappy marriages is dressed in designer shopping bags, a thumpingly loud soundtrack and all sorts of modernities.

But against all of the distractions and frippery around the production, it is actually fairly conservatively played. Alan Howard’s irascible Sir Peter Teazle. Aidan McArdle’s manipulative Joseph, John Shrapnel’s swaggering Sir Oliver, even Katherine Parkinson’s frustrated young wife – though a beautifully heartfelt performance – could all slot into a regular production of this show and indeed as we move through the latter half, something approaching convention does creep in. Only Leo Bill’s booze-sodden but nervily energetic Charles feels like something of a reinvigorated character who actually could fit into the suggested modern context. That said, I loved the gossiping coterie of Matilda Ziegler’s Lady Sneerwell, particularly Harry Melling and Stephen Kennedy making a fine nephew/uncle combination.

Ironically enough, looking back I think Warner could have afforded to be even more anarchic in her approach to the material and play up the moral ambiguity of all the characters to reflect the ebb and flow of fashionable society more. I wasn’t too clear on the morality on display here: Lady Teazle seems to get away with being quite hypocritical with her volte-face and Charles’ extreme bad conduct is easily overlooked in the face of his brother’s misdemeanours and I’d be ok with it if everyone were complicit in the acknowledgement of rum goings-on. But there’s a definite air of sanctimony to the older male characters which precludes this and so stretching credulity to the limit.

Knowing a little of Warner’s work and not knowing Sheridan’s play, I think I was as best prepared as I could be for this School for Scandal: I ultimately found little that was hugely surprising but nor was I disappointed by what had been ‘done’ to the play. Yes, there’s a huge amount going on in an over-inflated production which can at times jar and feel unnecessary, but truth be told, I was rarely bored during the three plus hours and frequently quite amused.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 18th June
Note: VERY loud music accompanies this show at regular intervals

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