Deborah Warner’s latest production tries so hard to be outrageous, one almost wants to fake shock out of pity. When The School for Scandal first opened in 1777, it was lauded for its witty dissection of a shallow society obsessed with rumour and status, what William Hazlitt called ‘the habitual depravity of human nature’. Layer on a proliferation of iPhones, parade a line of Gucci bags on stage, and fuss around with several gratuitous rounds of coke-sniffing before the first scene is over, and Warner has found a quick-cook, no-thought-required recipe for a pop-art take down of our continuing, contemporary depravity.
It’s all earnestly ‘relevant’, labouring the need to justify Sheridan’s pertinence to the 21st Century as if we audience members might not get it on our own. Fortunately, nothing can blunt the sharpness of his dialogue, and underneath the superimposed concept, there are some supremely moving performances struggling to get out.
Katherine Parkinson, in particular, is excellent as Lady Teazle, the country girl whose marriage to a wealthy older man brings her to London, eager to establish her credentials as ‘a lady of fashion’. After her success on The IT Crowd, she’s the obligatory young TV star in the cast, but the deftness with which she layers Lady Teazle’s newfound hardness over her insecurities is a timely reminder that she has always been a seriously talented stage actress.
Yet it is Alan Howard as her husband, Sir Peter, who really holds this production together. Unable to comprehend her new lifestyle, he sees only her gradual corruption and none of the social pressures which lie behind it.
Warner populates her stage with stereotypes: in the long catwalk show that plays as the audience members take their seats, the vast supporting cast parade placards like Brecht on speed, labelling their ‘stage types’ as ‘a man of sentiment’, ‘beauty’s superlative’ or a man with ‘nothing but infamy to depend on’.