‘It’s the most terrified I’ve ever been on stage,” Justine Mitchell says flatly. The Irish actor shudders at the thought of the elegant romcoms of the Restoration. She has triumphed over all kinds of dramatic challenges – Russian epics, Trump-era satire – but she’s not alone in her uneasiness. Everyone I speak to admits to an apprehensive frisson in approaching plays from the foptastic, periwigalicious world of the late 17th century.
Restoration plays come from the reign of Charles II and his immediate successors (roughly 1660-1710). In the wrenching aftermath of Britain’s civil wars and of London’s great plague and fire, it’s a disillusioned world. The fundamentals of church and state seem up for grabs; London is greedily expanding; marriage is misery but strangers are dangers. Ever worry about getting paid, getting laid or finding love? Does social anxiety prickle your palms? Do you despair of a world slipping its moorings? Restoration drama may speak to you.
For actors, the challenge involves excavating what initially seems forbiddingly unfamiliar speech and behaviour. Restoration tragedy swirls classical severity with turbulent emotion. Most enduring is Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved (1682), a tragedy of broken promises, public and private. In a crumbling Venice, the callous senate provokes conspiracy, and loyalties buckle under the strain.
Venice Preserved attracts devotees, including Harold Pinter, who once planned a production, and Prasanna Puwanarajah, who is directing it for the RSC. Puwanarajah (also an actor whose troubled charm ripples through Dr Foster and Mum) first encountered it when applying for a directing award. “It had an acting folklore about it – one of the key first plays written for a female performer as a tragic lead. It’s a series of superb two-handed scenes, exhilarating, charged and wholly committed.”
Yet when he pitched the play, “theatres were not queuing round the block,” he says wryly. “One response from a not insignificant person at a not insignificant theatre was, ‘Ah, Venice Preserved. The director’s graveyard.’” He giggles. “I don’t give a shit about that. I just want it to be an exciting, expressive thing to watch. I’m only really interested in audiences.”
I’m an audience of one at an early rehearsal in the RSC’s London studios. It’s one of those intense two-handed scenes, with Jodie McNee’s tormented heroine begging her estranged father – Les Dennis in uncharacteristically sombre casting – to save her husband’s life. The mood is thoughtful. Puwanarajah, dressed in inky tones but with a neon lick from his emerald socks, prises apart the rhetoric, suggests tiny movements, shares family stories and ideas about PTSD. McNee looks pale as the grave, hoop earrings shivering with emphasis. “There’s loads going on, isn’t there?” she says.
“Like all great plays, it’s never not in season,” Puwanarajah says over coffee after rehearsal. “Since I started working on it, eight years ago, the world has arrived at the play – which is about dangerous idiots in power.” Politically, Otway’s murky noir seems disenchanted – neither the conspirators nor their aristocratic targets emerge with credibility. “It is much closer to Scorsese – all the cops are robbers, and all the robbers are cops. Otway’s not as interested in those elements as he is in the people. Venice Preserved is a thriller set in a political dimension, but he’s writing about abandonment, poverty, the safety of a near-miraculous relationship and how fundamentally brittle and frail that is in a dangerous world.”
As a child of the 1980s, Puwanarajah will draw on the culture that shaped him. “When I started directing, all of my cultural references were cartoons that I watched as a kid. Then I realised that this play reminded me of the arch clarity of those experiences – people under profound duress, sensing their decline being charted by the decline of a city or state, and feeling they need to intervene. Either that’s romanticism or it’s DC Comics.” The result, he says, is what might happen “if Blade Runner was set in Venice. You move into the future, then freeze-frame that for 50 years and let everything get old and shit.” He and his cast find it “oddly clear,” he says. “It’s not that the play is hard, it’s that the humans are hard – complicated and real.”
If Otway’s tragic language lands with emotive force, the giddy wits of Restoration comedies are all feint and parry. These social plays run on adulteries and marriage contracts, on booze, banter and the bottom line, and actors must master speech that bristles with self-awareness. “It’s language weaponised,” argues Justine Mitchell, “wicked linguistic predation. The characters live in the language, they are defined by what they say – language is their armour.”
“All they have is what they wear and what they say,” agrees her fellow actor Fisayo Akinade. They appeared together in the Donmar’s thrillingly serious production of William Congreve’s The Way in the World (1700) last year; Mitchell previously starred in Love for Love (1695), also by Congreve, at the RSC. Congreve’s speeches sting and swivel unpredictably. “It’s a sea of words,” complains Akinade, “I found it incredibly hard to learn.”
Mitchell recalls a helpful note from James Macdonald, their director at the Donmar: “Impress each other.” These characters try to dazzle whenever they speak. “Congreve’s so funny,” Mitchell insists. “And he knew that women could be funny – and then everyone forgot.” The Restoration saw Britain’s first-ever professional actresses, and both Otway and Congreve helped them shine. As Millamant, the vigilant heiress in The Way of the World, Mitchell said she could only let her guard drop for a couple of seconds. “The characters are trapped inside these versions they’ve created for themselves.” Akinade, who played the deliciously daft fop Witwoud, agrees: “Everyone is playing a role the entire time. What are they like when they aren’t being observed? When the fop is at home and takes his coat off, what is he doing? Probably he just cried. They must have been exhausted.”
Easing the actors on to Planet Congreve was movement director Francine Watson Coleman. “This is a different socially structured world, where the body is more a mark of fashion,” she says. She helps actors “cross a bridge to another culture. This is a presentational world – they all intend to be looked at and are all looking at each other. It could be cruel – it’s not a pretty world, though it can seem glamorous.”
In physical terms, Coleman explains, people have “more turnout, an elegant, forward walk. Gestures are more fluid and open. It’s a physical repartee as well as a verbal one.” Take that archetypal Restoration prop, the fan – perfect for dissimulation. Coleman, en route to rehearsal, naturally has one in her bag, and its mischievous shuttle punctuates our conversation. “Once I have this in my hand, it gives an extra dimension to what I might want to do,” she says. “As a lady, it’s a liberation of a certain kind, a way to have my own opinions locked in physically to a life where I cannot otherwise be at liberty.” She goes further: “This is the first feminist object.”
How does it feel to inhabit those characters on stage? “They are so used to talking at a pace, with a billion balls in the air,” Akinade marvels. “It does take time to get there – but when you do it’s just the most exciting, hilarious thing imaginable. There’s a giddy tickle, you’re on the verge of laughing all the time.” Mitchell smiles wistfully: “I wish I could say the same. I would not run towards another Restoration comedy.” Even Akinade admits, “I wouldn’t want to do one again.”
Selina Cadell would disagree. Herself a trenchant actor, performance is her way into Restoration comedy. “When I was at drama school, I thought it was ghastly,” she confides, “but it’s the most incredible vehicle.” One of very few directors to have staged all of Congreve’s great comedies (including the RSC’s Love for Love and The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree), she declares, “It’s extraordinary how dextrous his language is, it’s stunning – like music.”
There was no hiding from the audience in well-lit Restoration theatres (some lucky bucks would sit on the stage), and Cadell’s productions embrace that theatrical charge. “The language demands the intimacy of talking to the audience – it’s like lighting a firework.” Yet these texts do intimidate actors – how does Cadell calm their jitters? “When we first meet I ask, ‘How do you feel about talking to the audience?’ Then it’s all in the language. You’re inviting the audience in. We take the cork out of the bottle and you get champagne.” As Mitchell recalls, “You conspire with the audience, and it’s delicious. People would talk back to us at the RSC.”
Restoration plays rear their periwigged heads every decade or so. They spoke to 1960s sexual freedoms and 1980s materialism, and offer a hand to our own age of uncertainty. But in performance their energy comes from the spark between everyone in the space, actors and spectators alike. “I want the audience to understand their involvement from the word go,” Cadell confirms, “they’re not behind a fourth wall. What matters is what happens in the room. It changes every night – sometimes it’s a riot.”