Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 29 – May 30, 2015
Playwright: Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Director: David Burrowes
Cast: Tel Benjamin, Richard Cotter, Sasha Dyer, Peter Flett, Emma Harvie, Rhys Keir, Chantel Leseberg, Moreblessing Maturure, Lillian Silk, Marty O’Neill, Nick Rowe, Billie Scott, Eleanor Stankiewicz, Samantha Ward, Jacob Warner, Madeleine Withington
Photography © Matthias Engesser
Money makes the world go round, but it is also the root of all evil. No ordinary person is able to escape the claws of modern economy, and we all have to define our existences in, at least, partially monetary terms. The School For Scandal is about greed, and our ability to be blinded by wealth. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s script is a wickedly funny one, and his outstanding wit has ensured that his story about deception and decadence is still well-regarded 238 years later.
Direction by David Burrowes is ambitious and visually striking, with a very contemporary rendering that draws inspiration from the nouveau riche of Australia’s more brazen social set. The work is wildly energetic, and comedy is always being created around the text, but less attention is paid on the nuances of the writing. The resultant work is flamboyant and amusing, but the actual story is often a secondary aside. Plot is sacrificed for effect, and while the experience is not always satisfying, there certainly is a lot that is remarkable in terms of the generous amount of creativity being featured. Isabella Andronos’ set and costume designs are mischievous and refreshing, adding to the Sydney theatre landscape an exciting aesthetic that is reflective of a particular generational and cultural segment. The representation of dominant social tribes is important in the understanding of our selves, and Andronos’ contribution is an acute study of the way things are, for some of us, in the absolute now.
All performances in the show are strong. The cast is committed to Burrowes’ vision of creating something extravagant, and to keep us entertained. Rhys Keir as Charles Surface is a quirky combination of sex appeal and clownish tomfoolery. The actor’s larger than life presence is determined to captivate, and his comedy is quite irresistible. Keir’s sharp instincts and confident timing make his joyful showmanship a real pleasure to witness, and his ability to manufacture chemistry with colleagues demonstrates a natural flair of someone born for the stage. Equally gifted is Madeleine Withington who plays Lady Teazle, a shrewd young lady with an impetuous, ditzy edge. Withington’s style feels unfettered, but there is an exacting focus to her manoeuvres that help provide a clarity to a plot that often gets lost in the incessant pandemonium. There is noteworthy work by two of the show’s smallest roles, played by Emma Harvie and Moreblessing Maturure, but it must be said that there is more than a little discomfort in watching the only actors who are not of Caucasian appearance, take on the parts of servants.
Theatre can do many things, but an audience will always concentrate on story if one exists, and treat other elements as subordinate. This production of The School For Scandal has a fierce experimental spirit that resides in every corner, but although undeniably passionate in approach, much of the effort does not translate as anything more than embellishment. Sheridan’s work is solid, and it resists obfuscation. There is much to admire in the show, but what we crave is something deeper and more substantial, something quite the opposite of surface.