Theatre review: The Rivals

It may be a co-production with Bristol Old Vic and the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse; but all the same, a glorious half-century of theatre history at the Citizens' seems to have gone into the making of Dominic Hill's exhilarating new production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's great 1775 comedy of manners The Rivals, which finally came home to Glasgow this week in a mighty flurry of wigs, face-powder, and heartfelt gender politics.

The Rivals arrives in a mighty flurry of wigs, face-powder, and heartfelt gender politics. Picture: Mark Douet

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow *****

On a set by Tom Rogers featuring two great, receding gilded picture-frames (shades of A Waste Of Time, 35 years ago), Hill sets the action, as ever, in a free-flowing open stage space that embraces not only the age and setting of the play itself, but also the present day, and flashes of the time between; Squire Acres taps out his challenge to a duel on an aged typewriter, and has his portrait taken via a polaroid snap. The same aesthetic applies to the performances, which combine a loving and perfect grasp of Sheridan’s elaborate, aphoristic language - delivered with outstanding eloquence by Rhys Rusbatch as the young romantic hero, Jack Absolute – with what seem like thoroughly modern levels of privilege, ennui, and general self-absorption.

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So Lucy Briggs-Owen, as the lovely heroine Lydia Languish, delivers a hilarious portrait of contemporary rich-girl boredom and rebellion, while never deviating from the original text; Nicholas Bishop as Faulkland – the neurotic admirer of Lydia’s friend Julia – might have walked out of a modern advice page for nerdy guys who stalk their girlfriends on social media. Both relationships finally emerge with a fierce feminist twist, as Lydia and Jessica Hardwick’s Julia make us feel the sheer frustration of being parcelled up for marriage like prize livestock and forever expected to tolerate men’s whims, instead of enjoying the romantic freedom celebrated in the subversive popular novels of the age. And if the story of the young people and their struggle for love rightly drives the play, there’s formidable support from the rest of the cast, led by 1980s Citizens’ star Julie Legrand as the legendary Mrs Malaprop, and Desmond Barrit as Jack’s terrible old father, Sir Anthony Abslolute.

Towards the end, the set offers increasingly tantalising glimpses of Bath in its golden age, a lightly-sketched Georgian jewel set among Somerset hills. Yet as ever, the touch is light, as cast members move around the back of the stage, pluck garments from the costume-rail, and exchange smiles with the harpsichord player; leaving plenty of space for our imaginations to move between then and now, and on into the future.

Until 19 November

Joyce McMillan