The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich
I went to the preview of the RSC’s production of this play with considerable excitement. I had reconciled myself to thinking that I would never see a production of one of Mary Pix’s plays and here it is. Why should I care? In the very early 1970s I spent three years reading and studying the three hundred or so tragedies that were performed in London between 1695 and 1740. I have only ever seen a production of one of them. Now admittedly The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich is not a tragedy but it is by one of the more popular tragedians of the period. It’s a Restoration comedy. It would be untrue to say that the RSC has uncovered a neglected masterpiece, but Mrs Rich is a perfectly good well-made Restoration comedy, all the more interesting because it is by a woman rather than a man. Most people are unaware that there were at least five well known and popular women dramatists of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century – Aphra Behn, Susanna Centilevre, Mary de la Riviere Manley, Catharine Trotter and Mary Pix.
What I found most enjoyable about this production, directed by Jo Davies and designed by Colin Richmond is that it catches a great deal of the spirit of what a production might have been like at the end of the seventeenth century. Of course the stage mechanics are very different, but instead of having flats in grooves pushed on from the side stage Richmond has painted curtains which can be furled and unfurled or pulled down as needed. Typical of the period are the many scenes with just a small number of characters who would have performed near the front of the stage because it wasn’t easy to see what with the fumes from the candles and the cigarette smoke. And Richmond has candlelike footlights round three quarters of the stage. There is spectacle, too, in the form of the sumptuous costumes, gorgeous to look at, colourful and a way of filling the stage and in the form of the toy coach in Hyde Park. The set consists of hand props – lots of them – all carried on and off by the cast. The mechanics of this give visual variety and all the transitions are slickly accomplished.
Davies uses a great deal of movement in the production and all members of the cast employ a series of expansive hand and arm gestures which give an authentic sense of period. There are period style songs, too, written by Tarek Merchant and a wind quartet and harpsichord in period costume and wigs which form a pre-show concert. Sentimentality is assured by the appearances of elder Clerimont’s dogs, Lossie and Theia.
What of the play itself? It’s all pretty familiar and recognisable if you know Restoration comedy. It’s a mildly satirical comedy of manners. It unmasks hypocricy, deals with social pretentions, reveals the shallowness of ‘persons of quality’, deals with the complications of inheritance, the crucial need for money in society courtship, marriage, plotting, twists and turns, mistaken identity, mischief making, the more grounded nature of members of the working classes. The only difference is that it is the women who are controlling everything, rather than the men and they are therefore alert to and manage to unmask male folly. One of the more hilarious moments is when there is a challenge and duel between Mrs Rich and Lady la Basset and they engage in a sword fight in their undergarments. Rich widows are searching for husbands and take the lead in their quests. The men might look as if they have some power and authority but they don’t. In the end the women find their husbands and there are marriages (giving the opportunity for yet more gorgeous costumes).
The cast is very good. Compared with the dire performances in Macbeth playing only a few yards away the acting here is properly professional. For me the star is Sadie Shimmin playing a wonderful servant/landlady magnificently. She is a joy to watch and to listen to whenever she appears. But there are other excellent performances, too. Mrs Clerimont turns out to be the moral centre of the play and Jessica Turner does a fine job, completely convincing. Sophie Stanton is on stage most of the time as Mrs Rich. She has most of the songs and is a commanding presence, her gowns taking up a great deal of space on the beautiful shiny parquet floor and the wearer showing them off to their maximum advantage. I felt at the beginning that there was something not quite right about her accent but then realised that that is because she is not a ‘person of quality’ and so her vowels indicate her pretentions. Effective. There are no weak links in this production. It’s a clever move to cast Tam Williams as Sir John Roverhead. He’s a slight figure who looks cute in his posh brocade but he is a small man, morally flawed, who gets his comeuppance at the end. I didn’t grasp why he had rouge only on his right cheek; that possible symbolism was lost on me.
Don’t expect anything very deep and you are bound to enjoy this production. Come and stay at Moss Cottage with its sumptuous breakfast and award winning marmalade and your visit will be complete.