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Manners maketh the man, wit the woman

Comedy of errors merges with comedy of manners in MADC’s latest production

From left: Joe Depasquale as Tony Lumpkin, Tina Rizzo  as Kate Hardcastle, Stephen Oliver as Mr Hardcastle  and  André Agius as Charles Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer. Photo: Christine Muscat Azzopardi

From left: Joe Depasquale as Tony Lumpkin, Tina Rizzo as Kate Hardcastle, Stephen Oliver as Mr Hardcastle and André Agius as Charles Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer. Photo: Christine Muscat Azzopardi

Theatre
She Stoops to Conquer
Salesian Theatre

Good comedy is hard to find; and good comedy which endures the test of time is even rarer. Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, first performed in 1773, has prevailed as a lastingly funny and perennially current script because it deals with aspects of human behaviour and interaction which make us realise that our flaws and quirks are in equal measure unique and very often the source of humour and misunderstanding.

MADC’s latest production of this Goldsmith gem ran last weekend at the Salesian Theatre in Sliema and this weekend is moving to the Manoel Theatre.

While the Salesian Theatre lends itself well with its Victorian proscenium in keeping with the tradition of costume drama, the Manoel was made specifically for plays of the baroque and rococco. But it is not just the venues which are fitting.

Director Malcolm Galea was right when he stated in the programme note that one of the strengths of Goldsmith’s piece is the script itself because its economy of language makes every line count – with nothing superfluous or overly wordy – all contributing to a consistently humorous play which blends the distinct genres of the comedy of manners with the comedy of errors.

A costume comedy makes a pleasant change from costume drama and its typical drawing room/manor house setting makes it quintessentially English.

The compactly chronological plot unravels over a single evening and night in a remote West Country manor outside a provincial village and brings together a motley cast of characters whose contrasts are thrown into sharp relief by means of tropes like the country as opposed to the city, with Charles Marlow (André Agius) and George Hastings (Gianni Selvaggi) as snooty city boys – fashionable and educated young men travelling to Hardcastle Manor to meet two young women – Kate Hardcastle (Tina Rizzo) and her cousin Constance Neville (Giulia Gatt), country belles who have much more sense and lively wit than all the country men they live with.

Kate’s stepbrother Tony Lumpkin (Joe Depasquale) is due to inherit his late father’s fortune but his mother, Mrs Hardcastle (Marylu Coppini), is a stubborn old lady who is trying to safeguard his inheritance and encourages a romantic attachment with Constance Neville to keep her inheritance of jewels in the family.

With a performance relying very heavily on comic timing and cast dynamics as well as strong characterisation, director Galea chose wisely when it came to casting

This is an endeavour which neither Lumpkin nor Constance like and part of the play’s subplot revolves around their thwarting Mrs Hardcastle’s plan in favour of Constance’s elopement with her lover, George Hastings.

While Constance’s love life is pretty tumultuous, Kate, at the insistence of her father, Mr Hardcastle (Stephen Oliver), has to contend with the incredibly square, incredibly modest and shy Charles Marlow, whom she does not like the sound of.

However, mayhem comes in the form of prankster Lumpkin’s idea to convince the two “elegant young city men” that Hardcastle Manor, to which he gives them directions when they meet at an alehouse, is in fact, an inn rather than a private residence.

This is when the comedy of errors begins to merge with the comedy of manners.

With cameo roles by Michael Mangion as Sir Charles Marlow Sr, John Marinelli as servant Diggory and Audrey Scerri as the alehouse Landlady, the main cast were buoyed with hair and wigs by Michael and Guy and costumes by Alex Spiteri and Gaetano Deguara, visually giving the production its period feel. But it was Thomas Camilleri’s clever set design, merging classical drawing room styling with a clever over-mantle projection screen and complementing the play with silhouettes of musicians playing contemporary orchestrations, which gave the piece a clever edge.

With a performance relying very heavily on comic timing and cast dynamics as well as strong characterisation, director Galea chose wisely when it came to casting.

Coppini was great fun as the melodramatic Mrs Hardcastle channelled all the snobbery and pomp of the country ladies, which Goldsmith made fun of by making them appear rather crass when compared to the refined London elite.

Indeed, it was the intention of the script to parody certain affectations of gentility within the landed gentry and Oliver’s no nonsense Mr Hardcastle was equally as entertaining as his wife. He wanted to marry off his daughter to the son of a friend of his, who appears to be all the more refined and certainly a good deal wealthier than they.

Thus was the way things were done in the social climbing games of the 18th century. The sharp interpreted lines rendered by Oliver sustained the West Country accent throughout the performance, which was more difficult for some. However, generally clarity was maintained by the whole cast.

Agius and Rizzo as Charles and Kate made a fine couple of opposites, playing their parts and those of their supposed alter egos very well. Both had swagger and charm in equal amounts and together with Selvaggi and Gatt – who had good timing and expression but could do with a stronger focus on clarity – proved that Goldsmith had a high regard for women’s intellect and their ability to manage a situation better than then men.

The two young couples were first thrown into this series of mishaps by Lumpkin, a part played with great gusto by Depasquale, who does farce and physical humour very well.

She Stoops to Conquer was coquettish and made fun of decorum while asserting women as the more quick-witted and insightful with regards to people’s characters and dealing with unruly men, making potentially embarrassing situations advantageous to all.

Definitely an enjoyable, light-hearted  play to watch.

■ She Stoops to Conquer is being staged at the Manoel Theatre tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at 8pm.

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