Features Published 17 June 2013

Lessons from The School for Scandal

Behind the scenes with director Jessica Swale.

Lois Jeary

Allow me, dear reader, to share some secrets with you. For I have had the pleasure of a most privileged position in recent weeks and have seen some scandalous things, I can tell you! Like the conniving Snake who silently spreads rumour and ruin throughout The School for Scandal, the pleasure of being an assistant director is to be found in the freedom to listen, to observe, and to analyse. Admittedly, the responsibility of being an assistant is also knowing when to keep shtum,  but we won’t mind that for now. Join me, for a little peek inside Sheridan’s scandalous school, where there is no-one better to learn from than renowned directress Ms Jessica Swale.

Swale is no stranger to the whys and wherefores of Georgian comedy: The School for Scandal at the new Park Theatre follows her productions of The Rivals, The Belle’s Stratagem and The Busy Body which all played at the Southwark Playhouse. Indeed, this production marks her second time with The School for Scandal, having previously directed a heavily cut 45 minute version at the Bridewell Theatre in 2009. Swale acknowledges that once a director has obtained a reputation for a certain style of work then people’s expectations have a tendency to run away with themselves, while the pressure of being part of a brand new theatre’s opening season is similarly lost on no-one; however, she cites her sheer love of Sheridan’s writing as motivation for returning to his 1777 play of reputation, disguise and extravagance.

Swale evidently possesses the utmost respect for the complexities of Sheridan’s frankly convoluted writing, with early rehearsal work focussing on the manner in which he constructs character through language. Sheridan was a great orator – a believer in the power of words – first and foremost. These words amuse and delight, but the challenge they present to the actor is never underestimated: from the outset Swale stresses that while a superficially humorous reading gives us a passable comedy of manners, there is a lot of work to be done on penetrating the emotional heart of the play which distinguishes Sheridan’s piece from its Restoration predecessors.

The relevance of Sheridan’s exploration of malicious gossip, artificial image and ruinous finances to any era – let alone our current one – barely needs stating. In a post-Leveson landscape, where government regulation of the press has reared its head for the first time since the end of the eighteenth century; when wilfully self-broadcasting one’s every thought and action goes hand-inhand with concerns over privacy; as media law struggles to keep up with the pace of technological change, the issues that concern the dissemination of information now are strikingly close to those of Sheridan’s own age, which saw an explosion of the printing presses at a time of weak licensing and libel law.

Yet Swale’s achievement as a director is in producing period pieces with thoroughly modern sensibilities, that remain entirely free of the humiliation of being dragged kicking and screaming ‘up-to-date’. She credits the audience with the intelligence to see contemporary parallels for themselves, and consciously remains true to the original text while taking a fresh look at character or structure to confront a play’s inherent weaknesses. Swale, whose first full-length play

Blue Stockings opens at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in August, brings a distinct dramaturgical sensibility into her rehearsal room, and nowhere is this clearer than through her use of music. With Laura Forrest-Hay’s original compositions evoking the Georgian era, Swale’s lyrical contributions are unapologetically bold, and while bluesy trumpet solos and blowjob gags may not be everybody’s cup of tea, music is one of the ways that Swale creates spaces within which the audience become aware of themselves.

As the ‘immersive’ bubble refuses to burst, producing all manner of experience without necessarily any particular care for story or character, it is useful to be reminded that our forefathers were not only at it first, but did it so much better! As Colin Blumenau, former Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, said to me during one rehearsal: the co-presence of the audience in the theatre is a necessary given and you “ignore them at your peril”. The Georgians cared not a jot for the fourth wall: delightful anecdotes abound of arguments kicking off mid-performance between those on stage and in the circle, and of boxes known as ‘clack-corner’ on account of their occupants talking as loudly as the actors.

Following the Age of Enlightenment, prologues and asides highlight the satirical nature of a theatre for an audience expected to think about themselves and their place within a changing world. Yet within the modern theatre, where a different set of conventions ultimately rule, the appearance of informality is reliably achieved through strict form. Space plays its part but establishing that form within the architecture of the Park Theatre’s thrust stage was nowhere near as straight-forward as I naively first assumed. For their part, the actors constantly negotiate a perilously thin line between alienation and engagement, shifting between comment upon character or situation and the total, believable truth of the play’s emotions with remarkable sensitivity and deftness.

Anyway, that’s enough philosophy for now: I know you really just want to hear gossip and scandal. I wish I could oblige but, alas, my professionalism silences me. It’s a shame really, because within the first week rehearsals had been interrupted by a Mr and Ms Squirrel getting amorous in the room next door (no, really, you couldn’t make it up!), a herbaciously pungent Finsbury Park air wafting suspiciously through the open window, and the sharing of illicit secrets about a certain royally balding father-to-be… and trust me, that was just the start!

Main image by Nobby Clarke. Red Handed Theatre Company’s The School for Scandal runs at the Park Theatre, London until 7th July, and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 11-13 July 2013.

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Lois Jeary

Lois holds an MA in Text and Performance, taught jointly between RADA and Birkbeck. In addition to directing and assistant directing for theatre, she also works as a freelance television news journalist for Reuters and has previously contributed to The Guardian.

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