In British mainstream directing, there is, one might say, a spectrum that runs from Katie Mitchell at one end to Richard Jones at the other. Katie Mitchell’s work in theatre and opera is intensely psychological, often extremely naturalistic, wholly an art-theatre experience, profoundly serious, visually beautiful, the choice in plays austere and modernist. Richard Jones’s work, in theatre and opera, is sumptuous, playful, non-psychological, riotously funny, often drawing on popular theatre traditions, what they used to call the theatre theatrical, and the play choices often being farces and opera bouffe. I suggested, maybe a bit unkindly, that the Young Vic’s A Doll’s House seemed to me an attempt to do Katie Mitchell on the cheap. The Magistrate seems to me very much hand-me-down Richard Jones.
First, for the record, the plot. The Magistrate has married a 36-year-old woman who has claimed to be 31. As a consequence she has persuaded her 19-year-old son that he is 14, despite his obvious developments. When an old friend is invited to dinner, she fears her subterfuge will be revealed and sneaks away to meet him and persuade him to keep the secret. The Magistrate, similarly, is persuaded by his son to dine with him in rooms that the young prodigy has taken to entertain friends. Everyone converges on a hotel which is raided in the middle of the night for serving drinks after licensing hours. The Magistrate escapes but the next day unwittingly sentences them all to a week in prison. The only way of annuling the verdict is if the son can be found to have been entertaining friends in private - but only if he is a legal adult. The truth is out, everyone forgives each other, and the play ends with a proposal of marriage.
It’s a classic farce. Lies built on lies, mistaken identities, various kinds of vice, pompous officialdom and happy endings. It does the classic farce thing of having Act 1 and 3 in respectable normality (the Magistrate’s home) and Act 2 in a liminal zone of licence and transformation. Here it’s the Hôtel des Princes; in Feydeau’s Flea in Her Ear it’s the dubious Hotel Coq d’Or; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s the forest outside Athens; in The Importance of Being Earnest it’s the country, in The Relapse it’s the town. And, never having seen this play before, I was surprised how well the comedy stood up. There are some very well-handled set-pieces including a scene in which a man is hidden on a balcony in the rain and then appears to have fallen to his death. There’s also a very enjoyable ‘front curtain’ scene in which The Magistrate recalls the escapades of the previous night, an opportunity for much physical comedy with John Lithgow handles very well.
Richard Jones established himself as a theatre director with a series of stunning productions at the Old Vic in the late eighties and early nineties, Too Clever By Half, A Flea in Her Ear, and The Illusion. Characteristic of his work is sheer theatricality, an enjoyment of theatre’s artifice, which is emphasised in stylised set, steeply and wonkily tilted stage floors, ostentatiously painted sets, often with art nouveau stylings, and the angles all a kind of comic expressionism. When he directed Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges for the Coliseum, he made it a scatch ‘n’ sniff opera: at various intervals, gentlemen in tails, with waxed moustaches and white gloves came on and held up number cards, directing us all to sniff the cards included with our tickets. In another wonderful sequence, a character is eaten by a crocodile: a huge rubber crocodile is thrown onto the stage and actor carefully and painfully manipulated it to look as though he were being eaten. Once in the crocodile costume, walked off satisfied. The family setting off on their epic journey was given cheated perspective by having a series of ever smaller actors make each successive pass across the stage, making them appear to recede into a vast distance. The photograph at the top of the page shows how much this production owes to the kind of theatre Richard Jones pioneered. It does make me wish to see Richard Jones on a big stage again.
This production is good. It’s fluff but it’s generally good fluff. John Lithgow relishes the part of the unknowing magistrate and Nancy Carroll is wonderfully feisty as the mendacious wife. Although it has annoyed some of the critics, the scene changes are aided by a series of pastiche Gilbert and Sullivan tunes by Richard Stilgoe and actually they’re rather well done. The production doesn’t push the frontiers of theatre forward and it’s certainly prey to the accusation I’ve made elsewhere that in these austere times the theatre falls back on conservative forms and an impoverished sense of entertainment, so in some ways it suggests a frontier in retreat. But let’s not slip in category mistakes: this show isn’t pretending to be anything other that a piece of festive escapism (there are meretricious christmas trees added into various scenes) and, in some sense, the lightness is an acknowledgement of its candy floss character. I suppose my regret is that when Richard Jones created this style, the superficiality felt like an artistic commitment to the play of surfaces, to performativity as a way of revealing the slipperiness of identity and to laughter as a profound kind of observation. There’s none of that here.