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the school for scandal: review

Photo © Matthias Engesser

Photo © Matthias Engesser

I had never heard of the play The School for Scandal before, on now at the New Theatre in Newtown, until the 30th of May, but I was bursting to see it nonetheless. Not because I’m a broke-ass student who was offered a free ticket. Not because eating lethal amounts of chocolate had been my only recreational activity in the past month. And not because I had an avalanche of assessment deadlines that I needed distraction from. It was because I was excited to see this performance because any story about ‘gossip, ambition and greed’ is enormously relevant to today’s Hollywood-centric society. In a context where people (namely, me) keep up with the Kardashians more than they keep up with her own family, I was curious to see how director David Burrowes would adapt Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play to our context.

You quickly realise that this production is more like an episode of a reality TV show than a play. Costume designer, Isabella Andronos, has given the characters that ‘I’m Rich But Also A Bit Trashy’ kind of look, which is typical of the latest generation of reality television stars. Miss Candour wears a leopard print skirt that could easily be something from Snooki’s wardrobe. It’s easy to relate any one of these characters in to a number of celebrities. The couple with an age gap as extensive as their height differences, Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, could easily be Brynne and Geoffrey Edelston or Hugh Hefner and Crystal Harris, or Hugh Hefner and any one of ‘thousands’ of other women.

Another thing you quickly recognise is the female character stereotypes. They’re very obvious, often painfully so, but it’s the exact same in reality television. Maria is the innocent and virginal character, who does her best to resist all forms of temptation. But I’ll mention that when she does succumb, namely to alcohol, Sasha Dyer’s physical performance is absolutely hilarious. Eleanor Stankiewicz performs her character, the widow Lady Sneerwell, in a way that’s elegant yet seductive. She’s like a ‘Housewives of New York’ kind of figure, who’s trying to keep up with the younger girls, whilst maintaining her dignity. Ms Candour is the ditzy blonde with an endless repertoire of spoken words, and no one willing to listen to them.

The highlight of Samantha Ward’s performance as Ms Candour is when she climbs onto a chair while wearing heels because she’s desperate to overhear a juicy new piece of gossip. I found myself laughing again, but in the my back of my head, I was picturing broken heels and snapped ankles. But this perfectly summarises the central issues of the play: These characters live to discover gossip, and they find no greater thrill than in being the first person to know of someone else’s misfortune. They will go to unbelievable extents – climbing on top of chairs in high heels for Christ’s sake – just to remain up to date on their neighbours dirty laundry. Even with the stage doors closed, there’s no sense of privacy. And in this technology-centric context, there really isn’t. Just think of the nude photo scandal last year, where ‘private’ photos from the iCloud accounts of several female celebrities were shared all over the internet. After overhearing some gossip that suggested Sir Peter was severely injured in a fight, Ms Candour’s first impulse when she sees him is to take a selfie with him. Nothing is too private to share anymore.

But there is something positive to say about the females in this play: they have all taken charge of their love lives. Maria resists Charles Surface’s advances, but when she does eventually succumb, this decision is entirely hers. Lady Teazle was rescued Cinderella-style by Sir Peter Teazle, from a humble country life to one of excessive luxury. I’ll say that Madeleine Withington is perfection for this role, particularly when Lady Teazle is dressed in black, and mourning the death of her reputation. Lady Teazle initially appears to be nothing more than a pretty face with expensive tastes, but a killer wit is later revealed, as she emotionally manipulates her way back into her husband’s wallet. I know this sounds like I’m speaking lowly of her, but I appreciate the fact that she refuses to treat her husband as some sort of saviour figure, even if she is a bit ruthless about it.

The play wasn’t perfect. During longer passages of speech, the actors often became difficult to understand. Some of the modern additions to the play, like Peter Teazle’s references to Kanye West, felt a bit awkwardly placed. However on the topic of Kanye West, Burrowes did perfectly highlight the self-centredness of the characters, an attribute that social media has brought out in even the best of us. I mean I spent the first part of this review just talking about my problems. Burrowes highlighted a lot of things that any member of the audience could identify with: selfies, a lust for gossip, a love of material things. The entire cast deserve credit for the way they effectively (and very entertainingly) adapted this play. There were people in the audience so old that they’d probably never heard of a selfie before, and they were in stitches. That’s impressive.

If you are interested in Burrowe’s work, then I recommend you check out his web series, ‘The Drive’.  The 12 episodes were filmed over as many days, and Burrowes wrote, directed and starred in it. The writing is really witty and funny, and the characters the same insatiable lust for money, fame, everything really.

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