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#HF11: With The School for Scandal, Deborah Warner gives a gleeful kick to an arch-conservative theatre tradition. The British are not amused.

Photo: Neil Libbert

That was a bit of a grind for British theatre critics. The celebrated director Deborah Warner (1959) recently pulled Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal out of the closet. A play from 1777, and an untouchable part of the British theatre canon. Building on the style of her earlier production Mother Courage (2009) Warner also indicated The School for Scandal - goddamn - a quirky, contemporary twist.


"With many video, light, music and noise - like a rock concert, " grins Warner in the office of the Barbican Theatre In London. "Mother Courage had an incredibly populist, exciting atmosphere. I love that arrogant theatricality immensely, and I wanted to continue that style in The School for Scandal. For me, the big challenge was to explore the Brechtian theatre style of Weimar - which I got through Mother Courage had discovered again - to collide with an eighteenth-century theatre text."

She was not thanked for that. The Guardian lamented the stylistic mishmash Warner had made of Sheridan's sharp satire on the hypocritical mores of the eighteenth-century British upper class. The Telegraph praised the eternal value of Sheridan's play - despite Warner's "arrogant and awkward" production, which the reviewer said was reminiscent of boors spraying graffiti all over an elegant old building. They were not alone. The Stage found it outrageous that The School for Scandal still seemed unfinished after three months of rehearsals. And Variety felt Warner's bombastic production deserved a dose of the ADHD drug Ritalin, while the Evening Standard Warner reproached her for turning Sheridan's subtle protagonist Charles Surface into a cross between John Galliano and a puppet psychologist had made. The Financial Times remained polite, referring to Warner's amalgamation of eighteenth-century and contemporary elements as "a bit of a mess.

That much venom? That suggests The School for Scandal is an interesting performance. It is. The School for Scandal is highly enjoyable, precisely because of its combination of sublime text theatre in the best British tradition and fast-paced music video-like scenes. The show will soon be on at the Stadschouwburg. It will be her fifth production in the Netherlands, following The Diary of One Who Vanished (2000), Readings (2007), Happy Days (2008) and Dido and Aeneas (2009).

"I tried to reach a younger audience by shaking up tradition a bit," says Warner. "When performing old plays from theatre history, it's always interesting to see what they mean in the here and now. The characters in The School for Scandal are obsessed with gossip, status and fashion. This has many parallels with our current times. We are also obsessed with scandals and reputation, and there is as much social inequality as there was in the 18th century. A decadent society on its last legs."

Upon entering, audiences witness a wild, MTV-like fashion show. Accompanied by a crackling housebeat and flickering lights, 21 actors parade across the stage like arrogant models on the catwalk. Contemporary clothing is mixed with eighteenth-century costumes - à la Vivienne Westwood. Using their phones, they take pictures of the audience.

They snort coke and drink champagne, while the set - consisting of moveable white panels with interior sketches - is illuminated by video projection with quick, graffiti-like fragments of text. A sign is hoisted down showing the title of the first act (five in total). With each scene and set change, these wildly flamboyant fashion show passages return.

It was quite a task to present the fifteen scenes of the play in quick and visually dynamic succession, says Warner. "I wanted to create a contemporary world 'in between' the scenes, which had to become just as telling as the scenes with text. Those quick in-between scenes are the heartbeat of the performance. I always want to put a big society on stage - so try to make what happens on the sidelines and between the extras interesting too. That makes this evening possible, and keeps the momentum going. Without that variation, I would die in my seat as a viewer."

In three hours, the cast runs at high speed through a complex, moralistic farce. The School for Scandal shows a coterie of wealthy pathees, gathered around the wealthy widow Lady Sneerwell, filling their time with gossip, romances and character assassination. So old Sir Peter Teazle and his much younger merchant wife Lady Teazle pass the revue, alongside the Paris Hilton-like diva Maria, gossipy aunt Mrs Candour, the hysterical rioter and aspiring poet Sir Benjamin Backbite and his mate Crabtree, and the glum ideal son-in-law Joseph Surface and his liberal hipster-brother Charles. All assisted by their servants.

"The School for Scandal is quite a mess with lots of complicated storylines," says Warner. "But it was Britain's most popular play for a hundred years - the soap opera of its time. Yet it is not such a feel-good affair. Firstly, because the structure in the first part is so complicated that no one can follow the story leisurely. Only after the interval does the audience get a break to let everything sink in. And there are also some very nasty, hypocritical characters in this play. Sir Benjamin is a false anti-Semite. I deliberately left those politically incorrect jokes in there because it illustrates the nastiness of those awful, superficial people."

Notable are the lightning-fast dialogues and the musicality in the great acting. The power and humour are in the composition of the phrases, not so much in the situations themselves - says Warner. "You discover that by playing at a high tempo otherwise this play doesn't come across at all. Sheridan's lyrics are attacking, like Olympic running. When we started rehearsing it was all way too slow - really agony. Now the piece is already 25 minutes shorter than at the premiere."

Warner is genuinely surprised by the torrent of negative reactions that The School for Scandal has elicited from her compatriots. She attributes it to the rock-solid position the play has carved out in British theatre history. "The School for Scandal has been performed in the exact same tame way for hundreds of years."

That tradition is dying, says Warner. "The audience that comes to it now is ancient. It's time for a new approach, to get the younger generation too excited about playwrights like Sheridan. Yet my version is far from revolutionary. I have actually stayed very true to the essence of the play. That's why I find this hysterical reaction from the critics completely absurd."

The School for Scandal / Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam / 24 to 26 June

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Daniel Bertina

/// Freelance cultural journalist, critic, writer and dramatist. Omnivore with a love of art, culture & media in all unfathomable gradations between obscure underground and wildly commercial mainstream. Also works for Het Parool and VPRO. And trains Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.View Author posts

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