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The Man of Mode
National Theatre (Olivier), London

Andrew Haydon
posted 13 February 2007

For a while, watching Nicholas Hytner's new modern-dress production of George Etherege's satirical, seldom revived Restoration comedy, there was an odd sense of déjà vu. Wasn't it Nicholas Hytner, after all, who had just directed a modern dress production of Ben Jonson's satire The Alchemist in the Olivier? The same Nicholas Hytner who had heralded his artistic directorship of the National with a modern dress version of Henry V, re-made as satire on the Iraq war? Indeed, isn't Alan Bennett's The History Boys (a gentle satire directed by Nicholas Hytner at the NT) essentially a modern dress play about the 1950s? The words one, trick and pony sprang to mind.

Yes, Hytner has dragged the National Theatre kicking and screaming into the 21st century with great élan. It has had some of the most brilliant programming in London, has stolen a march on the Fringe, new writing venues and experimental theatre (not to mention musicals and comedies) to such an extent that there has been talk of its growing monopoly starting to threaten other institutions, like a kind of theatrical Tesco. But, as a director, Hytner still needs to prove that if he's going to throw on another modern dress classic, he can justify it. It's simply not enough just to chuck everyone into suits and call them relevant. By the end of The Man of Mode, it is apparent that he has gone a long way beyond merely offering a modern dress production; Hytner has taken this fusty old thing and re-imagined its whole worldview - effecting the neat trick of subtly altering both the play's sense of humour and its moral universe.

It doesn't start that way, though. For a lot of the first half - the play comes in at just under three hours with interval, so Hytner has time on his hands - the whole thing looks wildly under-directed and over-designed. Admittedly the gorgeous revolving Chelsea interiors - transforming from ultra-rich bachelor pad, to upmarket lingerie shop and chi-chi bar behind sudden crowds of choreographed dancers as late-night binge-drunks, commuters, and, in one sequence, lingerie models looking more Spearmint Rhino than seventeenth century - are spectacular, but not enough to distract from the fact that some of the acting is a bit under-powered. It's one thing to do away with ludicrously affected éccents, but you need to have something pretty striking with which to replace them, or the initial verbiage leaves the audience frowning in concentration trying to pick up important plot details in a mire of slovenly diction.

Tom Hardy plays the central rake, Dorimant, as a thoroughly modern David Beckham-style celeb, much tattooed, photographed and groomed, who delivers most of his lines in that odd, post-Ali G, posh-boy voice that sounds like a cross between Eton and Snoop Dogg, while of his friends; Medley, the gossip (Bertie Carvel), becomes a bitchy young queen, and Young Bellair (Amit Shah), a well to do Asian, who is notably less cool than his mates. The usually excellent Nancy Carroll seems a bit at sea as Mrs Loveit, Dorimant's soon-to-be-discarded mistress - re-imagined as the owner of an Agent Provocateur-type upmarket lingerie boutique, while Hayley Atwell convinces as the next brittle, posh floosie in his sights.

More interesting is the newly added metrosexuality and multiculturalism. Were the Daily Express so minded, I imagine it could have quite a fun evening fulminating about how this vision of England peopled solely by gays and immigrants is being funded by public money. The wealthy out-of-towners bringing their wealthy heiress daughter to be married to Young Bellair are, in this production, a family of Indians. It's a concept that works well, not least thanks to a clutch of excellent performances: while the other ideas look merely clever, Amber Agar as an adorably spirited Harriet and Indira Joshi as her interfering but naive mother Lady Woodvill make the parts their own.

But, central to Hytner's transformation of the play is Rory Kinnear's Sir Fopling Flutter, the sub-titular figure of fun, around whose return to London from France numerous other intrigues spring. You get a sense from the text that the audience is meant to despise and detest Sir Fopling. He is, in the Etherege original, a ludicrous, preening, effete fool. Here too, Hytner has taken pains to render him as an utterly laughable Nathan Barley-alike. However, thanks to Kinnear's charisma and brilliant comic timing - the whole cast raises its game every time he comes on stage - this Sir Fopling becomes a kind of loveable David Brent figure. When he plays a silly love song he has written to Mrs Loveit, he does so with the misguided sincerity of someone too taken with his own estimation of his brilliance, rather than an affected cynic - this scene also provides the defining moment of the modernisation as all those watching his efforts whip out their mobile phones and start videoing him (presumably so they can put it on YouTube later) - a sort of dandy happy-slapping. Despite his laughable posturing, he comes across as the most sincere figure in the play, leaving Dorimant looking less like a dashing cad and more like an utter shit. This is the masterstroke that transforms the heart of the play. And it changes the final pay-off from one of those tidy lists of who'll marry whom, into something much darker and more bittersweet.

Using such a detailed, plot-led and highly period-specific play as a means of showing us something about our own world was always going to be a bit of a long shot. Yes, there are still rich people, and no, in the intervening 331 years, people have not stopped sleeping around. Beyond that, what Hytner has done is to take a morally ambivalent play, and pointed it squarely at an amoral section of the modern world and let the audience draw its own conclusions. Of course, if Hytner had really wanted to shock, he should have had a total gender swap and given us something to really worry about. As it is, in amongst all this cynicism and mockery, The Man of Mode is a pretty reactionary tale of how men are bastards, and women fall for it every time.

Till 10 March 2007


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