Robert Tanitch reviews The Country Wife at Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
William Wycherley (1641-1716) was much admired for his wit by society and royalty and The Country Wife, which premiered in 1675, is one of the funniest comedies of the Restoration era.
It is also one of the filthiest comedies and its sexual explicitness kept it off the stage from 1753 to 1924.
Wycherley makes one of the definitive statements on the period, namely that society works on the principle that “if we do not cheat our wives they will cheat us.”
The revival is so well directed by Luke Fredericks, so well acted and so well designed by Stewart Charlesworth that I quickly got over my initial disappointment that the play was being set in the 1920s rather than the 1670s.
The characters’ asides to the audience, excellently timed and spot-lit, are particularly effective.
Harry Horner (Eddie Eyre), on his return from France, lets it be known that he is now a eunuch and therefore impotent.
For a rake who has the reputation of being the lewdest person in Town, it seems most unlikely that any husband would fall for such a ruse and leave their wives in his company. But they do.
Wycherley borrowed this part of the story from the Roman playwright Terence’s The Eunuch (161BC).
Soon the society women are queuing up to admire his “China” and, in the play’s most notorious scene – the main reason for its expurgation – the much-exhausted Horner runs out of “China“.
“We women of quality never think we have China enough,” observes Lady Fidget (Sarah Lam).
One of the women, who fancies Horner, is Margery Pinchwife (Nancy Sullivan) , the recently married and innocent country wife, whose husband (Richard Clewes) is so paranoid that he will be cuckolded that he keeps her under lock and key.
Wycherley borrowed liberally from Moliere’s The School for Wives (1663).
The Country Wife is a lot of fun and the lively all-dancing scene changes, choreographed by Heather Douglas, are very much part of the production’s success.