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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Man of Mode
Olivier Theatre Spring 2007

Restoration comedy was built on two social observations. First, that in a world defined by casual sex (with the conquest - the notches on the bedpost - more satisfying than the act), with marriage strictly a financial arrangement, it was very difficult for two people made for each other to find each other.

And second, that in a world defined and measured by style, there were bound to be wannabes who got it all ridiculously wrong.

Sound familiar? Then you will enjoy director Nicholas Hytner's setting of George Etherege's 1676 comedy in 21st-century London. The updating works on just about every level (and requires only the tiniest of text changes), and has the bonus of bringing out the darker tones of the play, that might have been lost in period costume.

Man-of-the-town Dorimant divides his time between two mistresses, Loveit and Belinda, mainly by picking fights with each in turn so he can make up with the other. The fact that newcomer Harriet is smart, attractive and exactly the right woman for him only vaguely penetrates his self-absorption, though he does realise that, since he'll have to marry eventually, it might as well be to someone rich.

Harriet is in town to be married off, against her will, to Bellair, who actually loves Emilia, but that's a subplot that needn't distract us long. And literally dancing around the edges of all this is Sir Fopling Flutter, a young man with far more money than taste, and no sense that the others are all laughing at him.

(The title, which might be paraphrased as The Prisoner of Style, applies equally, with different ironies, to both Dorimant and Sir Fopling.)

Dorimant will juggle his women, Harriet will make the first steps toward taming him, Bellair and Emilia will get together - all in a context of high style and high wit.

Nicholas Hytner captures all of this, aided significantly by Vicki Mortimer's beautiful sets and David Bolger's witty choreography of the crossings and bits of business that cover scene changes. And, without hurting the fun, he also lets the stylish veneer crack from time to time to allow us brief glimpses of the human beings beneath.

Tom Hardy plays Dorimant as a prince of the city, a golden boy absolutely confident that he will never age and that nothing will ever go wrong in his life - nothing that a little charm won't get him through. But taking him out of the periwig and breeches of Restoration costume reminds us that whatever he's got going cannot last forever.

Nancy Carroll's Loveit and Hayley Atwell's Belinda are played as strong 21st-century women, which makes the ease with which Dorimant manipulates them all the sadder. And Rory Kinnear's Fopling is such an amiable fool that we feel for him even as we join in the laughter at his expense.

Hytner ends the play with a silent tableau. As the three losers - Loveit, Belinda and Fopling - are left alone and unhappy, Dorimant leaves with Harriet when his eye is caught by a passing beauty in what we now see as a rather sad little compulsion.

The comedy is all there. Bringing it up to date underlines it nicely. But it also makes this Man of Mode richer and more dimensional than most Restoration comedies you are likely to have seen.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Man of Mode - National 2007