R.B. Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Abbey

Contributed By Christina Morin

the rivals at the abbeyWhen I was a student in Dublin, one of my favourite evening outings was to the Abbey, especially when the Access All Abbey pass made it possible to see pretty much everything for about a tenner. So impressed was I with the deal, that when my family visited from the States I proudly trotted them in for a new reworking of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World by Roddy Doyle and Bisi Adigun. Then a seasoned veteran of Dublin humour myself, I never thought how incomprehensible this might be for American natives on one of their first visits to Ireland, and my hurriedly whispered explanations only seemed to confuse rather than enlighten. Nevertheless, I like to think they enjoyed the experience, despite the evident disadvantage of losing much of the subtler points of comedy ‘in translation’, as it were.

This episode came to mind last Tuesday evening, when I found myself back at the Abbey to attend a welcome revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s fantastic 1775 play, The Rivals. Like the recent performance of Playboy, this production of The Rivals has involved some updating, and an evident concern for cast and crew alike has been how to ‘translate’ Sheridan’s rollicking eighteenth-century comedy for a twenty-first century audience seemingly far removed from the interests, concerns, and intrigues of Sheridan’s society misses and misfits. To emphasise how much in common the average audience member might have with characters such as Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute, however, director Patrick Mason has introduced a new prologue offering a witty rumination on the relevance of Sheridan’s play to twenty-first century Ireland. As the actors prance around what is, for all intents and purposes, a backstage dressing room – a scene that remains, complete with racks of elaborate eighteenth-century clothing, more or less in touch throughout the rest of the play – some preen at their mirrors, others adjust their costumes, and still more fiddle with their ipods. Merging eighteenth and twenty-first century societies, and emphasising the theatricality of it all, Mason’s prologue risked becoming a little bit too heavy and, worse, somewhat condescending, but luckily it maintained its light and pithy tone throughout and had the laughs going even before Mrs. Malaprop made her first entrance, and, I might add, stole the show.

 With her outrageously extravagant costume, make-up, and hair, Marion O’Dwyer’s Mrs. Malaprop is as overblown as her language, which, in itself, is quite possibly the most humorous part of the play. Introducing the now common idea of ‘malapropism’ – the ridiculous substitution of one word with another that sounds similar but has a completely different meaning – Mrs. Malaprop blithely murders the English language while simultaneously defending herself against unjust ‘aspersion[s] upon [her] parts of speech’. My favourite malapropism occurs when, upon meeting the handsome Captain Jack Absolute, confidently and ably played by Rory Nolan, Mrs. Malaprop proclaims him to be ‘the very pineapple of politeness’! While it was fairly clear what word should have been used here – ‘pinnacle’ rather than ‘pineapple’ – other malapropisms were somewhat less obvious, as when, for instance, a few sentences later, Mrs. Malaprop asserts that her niece’s continued correspondence with Beverly (the Captain in disguise), positively ‘gives [her] the hydrostatics’. Such linguistic confusions were hilarious in and of themselves, but there was a suggestion of something being ‘lost in translation’, as audience members racked their brains and whispered to each other for the correct word. Nevertheless, this in no way detracted from the humour of O’Dwyer’s perfectly-delivered lines.

The other characters in the production were also generally well-played, although there were a couple of points of weakness. Most notably, Derry Power’s Bob Acres possessed an irregular accent that very often fell into a kind of Southern American drawl completely out of place in eighteenth-century Bath. The humour of Acres’ character, however, and Power’s lively and energetic acting more than made up for this slight inconsistency.

All in all, an excellent production and one well worth seeing before it finishes on 19 September!

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2 Responses to “R.B. Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Abbey”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    I saw this last night- really enjoyable. I would differ with your review on only one point- I thought Acres stole the show. Great fun and very funny.

  2. Tina Says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Glad you enjoyed the show! It really was a great production – I definitely encourage anybody with a passing interest in Sheridan or 18th c. lit./drama to go along!


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