Though written in 1676, George Etherege’s comedy of manners seems ideally suited for a 21st century update. He was writing at a time when a reverence for wealth and celebrity characterised London society, so you can see why Nicholas Hytner chose to reset it in a world of art gallery openings and slick soulless bars.
Etherge’s play concerns Dorimant, a sharp-suited, cool-hearted cad, casually discarding one woman so he can bed another, while contemplating marriage to a third. First glimpsed bare-chested, proudly displaying a toned, tattooed torso, Dorimant remains untroubled by his actions, instead revelling in his role as a Don Juan figure.
At the same time, Bellair, one of his cohorts is trying to wriggle out of an arranged marriage so that he can wed the girl he truly loves, a situation complicated by Bellair’s father’s own attraction to the woman in question. Hytner has cast Asian actors in these roles (including the mum from The Kumars as the would-be mother of the bride), though this is not a parallel he ever explores.
Despite some artfully choreographed dance interludes between scene changes, the production takes a while to get off the ground, things only really spark to life with the arrival of Rory Kinnear’s Sir Fopling Flutter, the titular Man of Mode, just over from France with a troupe of Parkour-style dancers in tow and a dubious selection of silver tipped shoes. Even his jeans have tassels. Kinnear is superb in the role, and responsible for the play’s funniest scenes, including a well-timed drinking game and an idiosyncratic recital of a love song that had the audience applauding.
Tony Hardy, on the other hand, as Dorimant doesn’t really make much of a mark. He had the necessary alpha-male egotism but none of the charisma such a role demanded, there was little to explain his appeal to all these women; whereas Kinnear, essentially playing a figure of fun, gave a far more sympathetic and charming performance. The always watchable Nancy Carroll gave a big, bitter performance as the jilted Mrs Loveit, but a lot of the acting on display felt over-amplified, as if trying to fill the huge space of the Olivier, (and in the earlier scenes, to compensate for some slightly duff acoustics).
Vicki Mortimer’s set, lots of cold hard white and mirrored surfaces, looked initially impressive but didn’t quite fit with the highly contemporary effect the production was going for with its jokey updated references to Shoreditch and Diptych candles.
There was a lot of fun to be had in Hytner’s production certainly, but it felt like an opportunity missed. A superficial study of superficiality, it offered no new insight into either our fashion-driven society or the period in which Etherege was writing. It’s an entertaining evening and Kinnear is superb but it could have delivered far more.