Robert Tanitch reviews The Double Dealer at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Surrey
William Congreve (1670-1729), the last of the Restoration Comedy playwrights and the most famous, had just had a big success with The Old Bachelor in 1793.
He was surprised by the negative reaction to The Double Dealer the following year.
He reminded the critics, who did not like the immorality of his plays that it was the business of the comic poet to paint the Vices and Follies of human kind.
Congreve caricatures the dissembling, the hypocrisy, the vanity, the silliness and sheer affectation of the beau monde. The satire, you feel, was directly aimed at his own audience.
Selina Cadell is keen to recapture the artificial acting style with which Restoration Comedy used to be performed. The heightened theatricality suits the in-the-round intimacy of the Orange Tree Theatre.
The actors engage with the audience as they enter the auditorium and that rapport is continued throughout.
Cadell warns us in a prologue she has written that we shouldn’t bother about the plot. Like so many Restoration comedies, The Double Dealer has a plot of unnecessary complexity; and so much so that it is often very difficult to know what exactly is going on.
Lady Touchwood (Zoë Waites), a passionate woman, wants to stop decent Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt) from marrying nice Cynthia (also played by Zoë Waites). She asks her lover, the wicked and hypocritical Maskwell (Edward MacLiam) to help.
Should Maskwell, a cool dissembler, be played for comedy or seriousness? MacLiam seems uncertain.
Lady Plyant (Jenny Rainsford), a role played brilliantly by the young Maggie Smith, is one of the funniest characters in the Restoration canon.
Lady Plyant sets about seducing the gallants and she is never as forward as when she is talking about her honour; and she is talking about her honour all the time, even whilst she is frolicking with her near-naked lover, Careless (Dharmesh Patel).
The Double Dealer is a lengthy conversation piece and after a time the verbosity becomes tiresome.
Congreve’s better plays are the ones that came after, Love for Love and his masterpiece, The Way of the World. Perhaps somebody very brave could revive The Old Bachelor?