The Way of the World
By William Congreve
Oxford Playhouse, Tuesday 13th - Saturday 17th April 2004

William Congreve was so disheartened by the critical reception of The Way of the World when it opened in Lincoln's Inn Fields that he reputedly told the audience members to save their disapproval as he meant to write no more. Good to his word, Congreve lived out the rest of his life (he was in his early 30s when he penned his final play) in various government sinecures until his death in 1729. The fortunes of The Way of the World have steadily climbed since then, and is now acknowledged as one of the finest Restoration dramas of the age. It is also Congreve's most popular revival play, and with good reason; with brilliant wit and finely wrought language, the play offers a memorable cast of rakes, fops, self-regarding fools and catty women, and all within a comic plot so well crafted it must have made Oscar Wilde green with envy.

The intricacies of the plot require close attention at times, but armed with a basic overview of the story - an intense perusal of the programme notes five minutes before the play starts ought to do it - you are very quickly absorbed in the sheer momentum of the dialogue. Our protagonist, Edward Mirabell, longs to wed the beautiful Millimant, but first has to contend with the aversion of her aunt, the vainglorious Lady Wishfort. Mirabell's scheme is already under way by the opening scene, where we glimpse the first stage of his plot to foil Lady Wishfort and gain both the hand of her niece in marriage and her share of the Aunt's estate into the bargain. The scheme hinges on convincing the aging Lady Wishfort to marry "Sir Rowland", an outwardly gallant peer who is in truth Mirabell's faithful servant Waitwell, and then using the threatened scandal of this situation to force Lady Wishford's hand. However, the plot is discovered by the spiteful Mrs Marwood, who turns events to her own advantage and settles old scores with her rivals at the same time.

The Oxford Theatre Guild has mounted a wonderful production of Congreve's play, replete with fabulous costumes and fine acting performances from the cast. It is worth the price of an admission just to see the hilariously bitchy exchanges between Marwood (Juliet Humphrey) and her rivalrous "friends", with their flashing eyes and silk fans quivering like the warning plumage of some exotic bird. Millimant, arrestingly played by Tegan Shohet, tempers her coquetry with an underlying warmth of feeling, and Oliver Baird turns in a good performance as the handsome Mirabell, by turns rakish and petulant, but always charismatic. But the highlight of the show has to be Barbara Denton's superb Lady Wishfort, in a performance that has the audience laughing out loud throughout the final three Acts. The Way of the World is a play that loses none of its original bite before a modern audience; the way of the world in Congreve's time is still the way now, with the same insecurities, posturings, romantic intrigues and town-country class tensions so cuttingly observed in Congreve's play. If you don't believe me, go see it for yourself.

JUSTIN BEPLATE, 14.04.2004