by W.S. Gilbert
Directed by Morris Panych
At the Royal George Theatre, June 24-October 23, 2016
In a peculiar program note that seems to suggest that Engaged might be better off left for dead than re-read, much less re-enacted, Morris Panych condemns W.S. Gilbert’s comedy before embracing it—a very curious thing, indeed, that gets “curiouser” and “curiouser” when linked to his treatment of W.S. Gilbert’s three-act farce–one that turned out to be his most popular theatre entertainment, apart from his operettas composed in collaboration with Arthur Sullivan. Perhaps Panych is practising a rare form of sophisticated irony in appearing to be cruel only to be kind. But, no, not when I actually observed and heard what was transpiring on stage. While Engaged is certainly not as witty as Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (but then what other comedy is?), Gilbert’s farce (mixing Scotland and England) can be read as a forerunner of Shaw and Ayckbourn in some ways—a middle-distance forerunner, perhaps, but a forerunner nonetheless. Given its roguish bachelor, Cheviot Hill (a rich penny-pincher who pledges his love to almost any woman on his horizon) and its materialistic Belinda (a woman who never allows love or ardour to get the better of money), it is a burlesque of romantic drama, becoming, in effect, a serious comedy for trivial materialists. As Bob Hetherington’s program essay astutely points out, in this comedy “the importance of being earnest is always about money, with friendship and love awarded in relation to it.” There is romance aplenty, as well as a fair amount of raging hormones. Some of the principal women are quite calculating in trying to find a man who will be responsible for their expenses. At the end, money is the thing most celebrated, with love running a distant second. Though the farce gets topsy-turvy, the satire is pointed and precise, particularly in its witty language best articulated by Cheviot and Belinda.
Yet, the first act of this production shows no confidence at all in the comedy. Panych seems unsure about how to perform the piece. Should there be an operetta approach, vis-à-vis the rhyming ditties in the prologue? Should there be a perversely bold enunciation of theatrical and courtship performativity? Should there be broad parody without moderation? Ken MacDonald’s décor of cut-out Scottish thistle and generic emblems points to a cartoon approach, and certainly the coarse acting by the cast, with particularly impenetrable Scots accents for the rough-hewn Maggie, Angus, and Mrs. Mcfarlane, makes it difficult for an audience to enjoy the play as much as it could be enjoyed.
And yet, the second act transforms a dud into a silken thing, beginning with MacDonald’s gorgeous rococo rose motifs going from background painting to costuming and furnishings. And the players all seem to finally be in the right ensemble mode, with their director forsaking his earlier coarseness for a style that, while still impish, whips up the energy quotient and reveals the hearts of the characters, and not just their enticing silhouettes. Julia Course’s self-flattering Maggie grows disarmingly funny, just as Jeff Meadows’s Belvawney, friend of the roguish bachelor, grows more absurdly comic. Diana Donnelly’s Minnie and Nicole Underhay’s raven-haired Belinda are fetching, sensuous, and terribly witty, with Underhay deliciously insincere about her ardour and anguish. And there are fine smaller sketches by Shawn Wright as Symperson, Ric Reid’s tartan and bewhiskered Major McGillicuddy, and Claire Jullien’s Parker, a maid who is an erotic mercenary. But no one outshines Gray Powell’s Cheviot, a portrait that owes something to wryly sophisticated Cary Grant, but that has Powell’s strong performing self stamped all over it. His pelvic thrusts and candid crotch in concert, Powell gives an extremely free comic performance, spouting ardent nonsense with aplomb, articulating a quixotic sense of fidelity while falling victim to the opposite. The actor triumphs in a role that turns comic romantic lust into seductive demagoguery.