I've had seriously varied reactions to Bell Shakespeare productions lately; a bit like the Star Trek movie franchise: great and awful in turns. Loved the 2010 King Lear. Absolutely loathed Julius Caesar. Thought Much Ado About Nothing was a glorious and unalloyed delight. Was alternately irritated and bored by this year's Macbeth. So I was due to enjoy School for Wives, and am happy to report that I did.
The opening scene reminded me strongly of Patrick Barlow's adaptation of The 39 Steps (ie, the insanely funny four-hander), while the close-out felt like a hat-tip to Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors. Auspicious influences indeed, even if this production isn't quite in that league.
John Adam puts in a massive rollercoaster performance as Arnaude, a chauvinist so extreme that he bought a girl at age 4 and has kept her locked in a convent for 14 years to make certain she will know nothing but her place - and naturally will also be too ignorant to know what she's missing when he finally marries her. Hilarious, non? (It ought to be; it's not Moliere's fault that current conservative voices have rendered Arnaude's more outrageously misogynistic pronouncements less absurd than some presently befouling the airwaves.) But of course the path of twisted and inappropriate love runs no more smoothly than that of the true variety, and Arnaude's bonsai bride-to-be Agnes (an absolutely brilliant Harriet Dyer) promptly falls for Horace, the first other man she meets (not so surprising when it's Myene Wyatt, who moves like an angel).
Justin Fleming's translation is pacy and witty but possibly suffers from being a little too true to the original; some scenes - such as one where Arnold's doltish servants insult and abuse him - seem a bit pointless and might have been better cut. The rhyming script is a remarkable piece of work, but sometimes it feels a little forced.
Costumes were excellent, and one lovely subtlety was seeing Agnes come on in similar yellow frocks which increased in brightness as her awareness grew too. The 1920's Paris setting added freshness and comic opportunity; though I did wonder at one point what a Frenchman might be doing with a cricket bat. The moveable set had some advantages - one might be recycling: I swear that was the same scaffolding and stage lights that Bell used in Julius Caesar last year - but I think will work best when viewed squarely front on. I was seated to the side, and suspect I missed the full effect of having assorted screens and frames lined up to best advantage.
Finally, a special mention has to go to Mark Jones, the Bill Bailey doppelganger who provides brilliant comic support on piano, kazoo and assorted percussion (I was deeply impressed with his ability to articulate unmistakeably the phrase "WTF" using only a kazoo. It's all in the intonation). Jones is hilarious and I don't know if the decision to add this accompaniment came from Fleming or director Lee Lewis, but it's inspired.
I hope Bell keeps bringing us more of this stuff; I sense rich opportunity in next November's A Comedy of Errors. Recommended viewing.