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There’s an important fact that you don’t really get told in English lessons: plays aren’t actually meant to be read. Go to school or university and you could come away imagining that plays are strangely bare, odd-shaped novels, with no description; and scene changes instead of chapter titles. The truth is, of course, that plays (being plays) are meant to be acted, and reading them only lets you understand half of what’s really going on. It’s like trying to watch a film from the next room while you’re busy with something else.
Plays, after all, are about communication, and communication is made up of a lot more than just speech. It’s about the nuances you put into words, the movements you make, the tone of your voice. You can say the words “He’s very handsome,” and show by the way you say them that you really do think so, or that you think that he thinks so, or that you secretly think he’s a hideous toad in a suit.
This is something that living in London has really brought home to me. I keep going to see plays that I think I know well, and every time I come away astonished at how much better they are in action than I ever imagined they could be when I was reading them. She Stoops to Conquer is a case in point. Written in the eighteenth century by Oliver Goldsmith, it’s the story of upper-class twit Marlowe, a man who’s spent all his life being educated and has consequently never learnt how to deal with women of his own class. A saucy rake around bar maids and the like, he becomes a dribbling idiot when put near any girl who’s fully dressed and able to write her own name. Eventually, his father loses patience with him and sends him off to be married to upper-class lady (and extremely clever girl) Kate Hardcastle. Of course, Marlowe can’t even look at her, but Kate likes the look of him so much that she decides to seduce him by dressing up as a maid. Events, of course, proceed amusingly from there, and end up with lots of marriages and general revelry.
Even on the page, She Stoops to Conquer is completely delightful. It’s difficult not to be won over by a heroine who exclaims, when told of a prospective lover’s good looks and fortune, “He’s mine! I’ll have him!” Gleefully anti-authoritarian and with a deliciously hard-headed attitude towards romance—when another character exclaims, “Perish the baubles! Your person is all I desire!” he’s told off by his fiancée for being too impractical—She Stoops to Conquer champions desire founded on what’s in someone’s head as much as what’s in their heart. Love, here, is about compatibility, mental as well as physical: an attitude that chimes so well with what we believe today that I’m forced to conclude that either people in the eighteenth century were much more advanced than we give them credit for or that we’ve hardly moved on at all.
But that’s just the text. The play is what you do with that text, and the ever-brilliant National Theatre has used Goldsmith’s words to create a new production that’s charmingly naughty, visually spectacular and so uproariously jolly that I left the theatre in a haze of goodwill towards mankind.
As I’ve said, I studied the play at university, and so I thought I understood the irony of lines like Marlowe’s “As for Miss Hardcastle, she’s too grave and sentimental for me.” But when I finally saw him saying it, blissfully ignorant, while the Miss Hardcastle in question came sidling up behind him lifting up her skirt and aiming her cleavage at his head, I realised that I’d been missing how incredibly, dirtily funny the situation really is. This production definitely makes the most of the play’s physical humour. Marlowe, when he finally notices Kate in her peasant dress, leaps up and neighs like a horse; characters slap and pinch each other and drag each other in and out of rooms; and Kate’s country-bumpkin mother has an awe-inspiring accent that travels up and down the register from Glasgow to Torquay.
Sophie Thompson (who plays Mrs Hardcastle) really does have a show-stealing turn. From her curtseys (which always end up as undignified crouches) to her hairpiece (which is constantly falling out) she’s outrageously pitch-perfect. Not that the cast she overshadows aren’t excellent as well. Kate (Katherine Kelly) is beautifully pert, Marlowe and his friend Hastings (Harry Haddon-Paton and John Hefferman respectively) are magnificently foolish, and Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) just has a great time shouting at everybody.
It’s all backed up by gorgeous costumes and a stunning set (the Olivier Theatre’s rotating stage is put to good use, and we even get tree trunks lowered down onto the stage in the garden scene), and an incredibly enthusiastic ensemble who gallop around banging on pots and pans and singing.
She Stoops to Conquer is a wonderful text that’s had wonderful things done to it, and the result is a play that’s genuinely funny and warm-hearted. And most importantly, it’s a pleasure to watch.