The School for Scandal at the Barbican Theatre


Just as Britain remains in the grip of super-injunction fever – where hairdressers no longer ask what holiday you’re taking but whether you know it’s Giggs or not – so this eighteenth century masterpiece is brought back to life

Actors from The School for Scandal play at the Barbican theatre

Photo by Ben Westwood, courtesy of Barbican Centre

Deborah Warner’s production of Richard Sheridan’s 1777 gossip-obsessed play, The School for Scandal, couldn’t be timelier.

It is a play driven by hearsay and slander. In its opening scene the chief perpetrator, Lady Sneerwell, declares to her accomplice Snake:

Wounded myself, in the early part of my life, by the envenomed tongue of slander, I confess I have since known no pleasure equal to the reducing others to the level of my own reputation.

With scenes that verge on the absurd, the play has stood the test of time thanks to its hilarious scenes and astute observations of British society – observations still shamefully relevant today.

Warner goes to great lengths to hammer this home. On stage occurs a schizophrenic mix of period costume and modern props – celebrity magazines are fingered by a cast replete in traditional wigs, full gowns and turned up jeans.

The School for Scandal maybe a masterpiece, but so is Hamlet and few companies dare attempt that in its entirety  

Each scene is interspersed with loud electronic music – not moronic house music – but intelligent, base-heavy beats that wrench the audience back to 2011.

But I suspect the music serves another purpose too – albeit unintentionally. With a three hours and fifteen minutes running time I fear that, at times, it helps keep the audience awake.

Why on earth Warner hasn’t shortened this play is unclear. Of all the modes available to update it, shortening some of the over lengthy scenes would surely have been the most obvious and effective?

The School for Scandal maybe a masterpiece, but so is Hamlet and few companies dare attempt that in its entirety.  

Warner is famous for her purist interpretation of texts (which would explain her decision). Her production of T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland at Wilton’s Music Hall won her rave reviews for its stark simplicity that penetrated audiences.

Nothing else but a wooden chair, a single lightbulb and faultless direction transformed Eliot’s notoriously difficult poem into an accessible and memorable piece of theatre. The night I watched it the audience gave a devoted standing ovation.

Sadly, there was none this time. It was all just too over contextualised. We already know it chimes with our gossip obsessed nation (the clue‘s in the title) we don’t need it rammed down our throats. This isn’t English Lit A’ Level, I’m not going to colour code the different themes.

At the heart of the play are Lord and Lady Teazle – the latter a former country bumpkin who once married to Lord Teazle becomes obsessed with extravagant spending and making herself a “lady of fashion”.

It is the brilliant performances of Alan Howard and Leo Bill that rescues the play from its patronising clutches

You’re no doubt thinking of somebody already, perhaps famous or otherwise – I can think of six without even trying. If you can’t think of anyone go pick a copy of Heat or Hello magazine. I won’t mention names here – I’ve no wish to court a libel suit – and besides, where would I begin? 

Just as viewers must suspend their disbelief, so too must writers assume a certain degree of intelligence on behalf of the viewer.

Writers like Kafka, Orwell and Dickens resonate so intensely with modernity, describe so fervently the human condition, that their names have become commonly used adjectives. If I describe CCTV as Orwellian I don’t need to explain to you why.

Sadly this crucial point is missed. As a result, the most effective scenes are those that aren’t so tampered with. These often include Sir Peter Teazle, played by Alan Howard who steals the show somewhat.

In fact it is the brilliant performances of Howard and Leo Bill, who plays loveable rogue Charles Surface, and John Shrapnel as the forgiving uncle that rescues the play from its patronising clutches to reminding us that it’s not us who are back at school.

By Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Directed by Deborah Warner