This new play at the Swan is ‘A new Roman Comedy by Phil Porter inspired by the plays of Plautus’. I haven’t either read or seen any plays by Plautus and am therefore reliant on the RSC programme where I am told that they were borrowed from Greek comedy, ‘quite slight and short’, with stock characters, an author on the side of the underdog, puns, vaudevillian silliness, song, dance and lots of broad and bawdy jokes. Vice Versa has them all. Polonius says ‘Seneca cannot be too heavy nor Plautus too light.’ I’m not so sure. Vice Versa was too light for me. Also too long at just over two hours playing time.
The RSC programme has a discussion between assistant director Emma Butler, director Janice Honeyman and writer Phil Porter where much is made of adding some depth to the characters. If they have done this then I dread to think what it would have been like without the additions. I could find very little depth in anyone. It just seemed to be good fun, although rather lengthy and repetitive good fun (the repetition was part of Plautus’s style, we are told).
Constant addresses to the audience are designed to make the audience have a good time and to feel part of the vacuous world depicted. Granted there is a little very simple undeveloped satire – the play is anti-slavery, depicts women taking control, a little anti-war and anti-establishment – but most of it is based round a scheme by the slave/servants of General Braggadocio to take control and frame their freedom and the struggle that characters who are very dim have in being able to make any plan work.
Colin Richmond’s set is very pretty to look at. It’s a nice Italian street scene with two house facades and all the action takes place outside the house fronts. There is loads of stuff, much of which has a joke attached, the costumes are appropriately comedic: overblown, silly and unrealistically exaggerated. There’s a great deal of running about the auditorium. Sam Kenyon’s music is rousing and energetic.
Because it’s farcical it’s hard to say much about the acting. Carry On and Up Pompei provide many of the references, gestures and walks as well as allusions. Jon Trenchard’s monkey is fun to watch, Nicholas Day’s Philoproximus is a delight, with far more subtlety of comic gesture and timing than anyone else’s and Katherine Toy’s Melodius amused me whenever she appeared.
Felix Hayes’s General Braggodicio, having graduated from the School of Silly Walks and Postures, lived up to his name and Sophia Nomvette as the centre of the play was energetic.
I managed eventually to stop my mind trying to find an idea where there wasn’t one but I wish there had been something.
There’s a temptation to think that this is populist. It isn’t really. It’s entertainment for the theatre-aware middle classes who want to have an evening where they can laugh without thinking. Go see it if that’s what you like. You will enjoy it.