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For an abject lesson in how to stage a classic farce, you could do a lot worse than the National Theatre’s current production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate. It is the set that immediately captures your attention. Designed by Katrina Lindsay, a wooden city bursts out across the stage, topped with a bow and labelled with the play’s title in scrawled handwriting, creating a chaotic, higgledy-piggledy playground-like arena in which the cast are free to explore their outrageous characters and the wealth of ridiculous scrapes they get themselves into. Those expecting subtlety or a light touch will be sorely disappointed. With performances that match the scenery in garish vivacity, it was obvious that a great deal of effort had gone into every aspect of this delightfully silly production. The play works all the better for this, and sometimes it’s nice to have all the work done for you.
Controversy has arisen over the inclusion of original musical numbers in this production, particularly from Michael Billington in a review for the Guardian, who remarked that it indicates a lack of trust in the script. However, I felt the songs, performed for the most part by a riotous chorus of pinstriped pantaloons and ruffled dresses, are never permitted to intrude on the main plot. Despite the seeming similarities, The Magistrate differs from a full-blown musical, such as Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, because the songs don’t drive the action. Instead they simply reinforce points, whilst also providing a neat sideline in social commentary. This is particularly the case with my favourite of the songs, “The Mystery of the Age”, which deals with the role of women and the restrictions placed upon them in Victorian England. The songs also help to ease the transition from one elaborate set to another, along with the chorus members who frequently come close to toppling into the staging mechanism beneath the Olivier stage. This production certainly shows a much more inventive and effective use of chorus members than that in Alan Bennett’s People, simultaneously being performed downstairs in the Lyttelton. The chorus here is more of the Greek variety than anything else, foreshadowing the play’s events and popping up now and then to clarify and comment on what we in the audience see.
They are, fittingly, the first people we see on stage, introducing us to a world of double meanings and misinterpretation, warning of “the little lies that get you into trouble” and promising to reveal what goes on behind the “closed doors” of the Victorian middle-class. This song is reprised at the end of the first act, hammering home this message.
The blunt approach to subtext doesn’t stop there, as the audience is consistently reminded of the root cause for everyone’s confusion: a lie told by the magistrate’s wife Agatha about her age and, more humorously, her son’s. Jokes are mercilessly signposted and reiterated, and everyone has a catchphrase or physical tic as the basis of their characterisation. Somehow, committed performances from the entire cast prevent this endless repetition from becoming tiresome. I’m not ashamed to say I laughed throughout at the skilfully-delivered punchlines and reactions on display. Acclaimed American actor John Lithgow is the production’s big-name draw as the titular character. Equally of note is Olivier-winner Nancy Carroll, who seamlessly switches between dignified grace and a roar of indignance.
Lithgow’s anxious attempts to both avoid temptation and deal with the its consequences remind me strangely of Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman. A professional man trying to keep his family intact under immense pressure, the magistrate seemed almost a tragic hero, whose fatal flaws were very much in evidence when his stepson—McGuire’s sinisterly precocious Cis—runs rings around him, dragging him into no end of trouble. Mercifully, there is no time given for an examination of this potentially dark side in Pinero’s plot. The magistrate remains a tragi-comic hero, while the slapstick and colourful characters keep coming. Even the smallest roles are juicy caricatures. The cast appears to relish the over-the-top stereotypes and the make great use of the opportunities for physical comedy inherent in the script.
The women in the cast bustle across a series of storybook page scenarios (their movement enhanced by their skirts), teetering on a set that looks like it is about to fall in on itself at any moment, mirroring the unstable facades of the characters themselves. There are wonky pieces of furniture and crooked doors in abundance, all adding to a gleefully slanted take on Victorian London, and a sneaky (possibly inaccurate) Christmas tree to really pump up the festive cheer. All in all, The Magistrate is just the ticket for a night at the theatre around the holiday season—there was even a light dusting of snow to disguise the tape used to mark out the boundaries of the set. At the end, after a good old-fashioned knees-up from the cast, the curtain call is given over to a tongue-in-cheek song that warns us all never to become the sort of person who gets “pilloried in farces at the National.” I’ll do my best, but no promises . . .
The Magistrate is on at The National Theatre in London until 10 February. It will be broadcast to cinemas across the UK and around the world on 17 January at 7pm. Find your nearest venue.