“A woman of quality”.
It’s certainly got a nice ring to it. However, as the RSC’s production of ‘The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich’ shows, you can’t buy class. Either you’ve got it, or you haven’t…
Wealthy widow Mrs Rich dreams of being accepted as a “a woman of quality”. Despite her privileged lifestyle and economic status, she aspires to gain a title and climb the social ladder. With the help of those in her social circle, Mrs Trickwell and the Lady La Basset, Mrs Rich hopes that marriage to Sir John Roverhead will help her secure the place in society she so longs for.
Meanwhile, the young and wealthy widow (rich men in this time didn’t seem to be blessed with longevity) Lady Landsworth, masquerades herself as a woman of questionable morals, in order to test the morality of the youngest of the Clerimont brothers, who she ultimately seeks to woo. Cut out of his inheritance by his brother (Elder Clerimont) and living in a state of poverty, he refuses the money she offers him (seemingly for sex), much to the dismay of his servant, Jack.
The RSC prove that we are certainly living in “an age very fertile for wit” with their revival of English novelist and playwright Mary’s Pix’s ‘The Beau Defeated’, written in 1700. Under its original title, ‘The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich’, the production, directed by Jo Davies, is simply “brimming with wit”.
The play is a sterling example of a Restoration-style comedy of manners. With theatre banned for eighteen years under the Puritan regime, the restoration of the British monarchy under the rule of King Charles II spawned a new demand for such a genre, no doubt influenced by the liveliness and hedonism of the King’s court.
Full of the archetypal stock characters found in plays of this style – the wealthy widow, the foppish womaniser, etc – the production’s colourful and larger-than-life cast skilfully embody such clichéd qualities, proving why these often two-dimensional characters remain so popular, so loved, in the world of theatre.
Sophie Stanton steals the show as Mrs Rich, her performance one of the highest quality. A powerful woman with big social aspirations, her comic timing and many facial expressions are delightful. Unlike the other characters, however, her character is given a third dimension, if you like. Grant Olding’s songs go some way to developing the character, allowing the audience to connect with her in a way we do not with the other characters. Stanton, alone on stage, allows us glimpses into her innermost thoughts, as she reflects on class, and her ambitions. During these moments, Stanton was fully engaging – very aware of her audience.
Daisy Badger shone as the Lady Landsworth, her performance one of refreshing clarity, opposite Solomon Israel‘s dramatically lovable Younger Clerimont. Sandy Foster was very comical as Mrs Trickwell, the epitome of high class snobbery, her face often seeming to fold into itself in disdain. Tam Williams was a big source of comedy as Sir John, a character excessively concerned with his appearance, forever fixing a wayward curl that drapes over his forehead. Leo Wringer was delightful as the Elder Clerimont, a country squire enamoured of his dogs (two of which frequently appear on stage), and perhaps the most honest character in the play, stripped back of any pretence that his wealth and title might bring, wearing what he likes, and acting how he likes.
Designer Colin Richmond‘s sets and costumes are exquisite, so much so, they wouldn’t look out of place in the court of Marie-Antoinette. The sumptuous sets, framed by lights that seem to echo those located on the dressing room tables of celebrities, are emblazoned with place names in bright graffiti, alerting the audience to location in this lesser-known play, with more than one plot that we could easily get lost in. The costumes are equally lavish, the dresses seeming to get bigger and more elaborate as the play progresses, with an alarming height to some of the wigs. Welcome visuals in a time of so many modern-day adaptations of traditional classics.
The production presents us with ambitious women chasing after what they want in an expression of female empowerment, disproving the notion than, in order to succeed, one must be born into a particular ‘class’. In Pix’s time, this was more than likely true – women were limited in how well they could do, their prospects controlled by men, who were usually required (in one way or another) for a woman to ‘do well’. In today’s world of mainstream feminism, we understand the struggle women have had to go through in order to achieve success, and the messages at the heart of this production therefore resonate with audiences of today.
The production satirises the very notion of ‘class’, with much humour to be had at the expense of the folly of pretentious high society, mocking the very idea of a privileged elite, born into wealth and titles, who scorn those attempting rise up through the ranks, as it were. Once again, the production proves significant, as today class divides seem to forever be growing further apart – the rich are getting richer, whilst the poor are getting poorer. Although the purpose of such theatre is to exaggerate, to the point of ridicule, people (or in this case entire social classes), a bawdy and scandalous form of entertainment intended to make people laugh, there’s no doubt that, as with every other play, there’s an honesty to it (albeit an overly dramatic one), that seems to echo the very thoughts of its audiences, doing so in a way that incites bewilderment.
One of a leading trio of female playwrights in the Restoration period, Mary Pix’s work proved hugely popular in her lifetime, distinguished from the work of her male contemporaries for its expansive use of female characters, and it’s true that this play has a definite charm, an elegance to it. However, her work nearly lost to the sands of time, Pix is sadly not as well-known as her female contemporary Aphra Behn.
However, Davies’ production proves that Pix’s play is more than capable of gracing the stages of today. A worthy and fully deserved revival, this production is not to be missed.
A “furiously” fabulous feast of fun, frivolity and fantastic follies!