If you were looking for the most quintessentially ‘Oxford’ experience 4th week can serve up – nostalgic finalists, I’m looking at you – one would struggle to do better than this garden production of She Stoops To Conquer. The lush Cathedral gardens of Christ Church are a draw in themselves, even without this slick and pacey comedy of manners, its assured cast and elegant staging.
The lush, neatly-walled gardens create an atmosphere which is just enclosed enough to feel bucolic, spacious enough to feel open and alive with dramatic possibility. As the cast gets into its confident and delicately comic performance, one feels as though the whole event has been constructed so as to cause hysteria among American tourists.
The challenges of an outdoor stage are neatly met with simple yet stylish set design. Director Lily Slater has reimagined Goldsmith’s 1773 play in the 1930s. This works surprisingly well, helping to elucidate the rather subtle nature of Goldsmith’s marriage plot. Since it relies not upon a forced marriage (as we might guess from its 18th century origins) but upon a nuanced set of family expectations; it is relief that this fine script avoids being crushed by sweeping generalisations or over-obvious directing.
She Stoops To Conquer is a play that is deeply preoccupied with class, clothing, and the interplay between the two. We see Marlow (Markian Mysko von Schultze) and Hastings (Tom Waterhouse) mistaking the country home of Marlow’s betrothed for an inn, the gracious head of the household for a pompous landlord, and Marlow’s future wife for a barmaid. Gorgeous costumes help to amplify this obsession with class appearance at every turn.
Goldsmith has an eye for the moments in which identities are draped over one another; we see class status built up and dismantled according to the ways in which characters dress their bodies or their rooms. In particular, this play comes alive in the little slippages between appearance and interiority. The crucial conceit of the play is Marlow’s social handicap, a weird and extremely revealing inability to speak to ladies ‘of reputation’, despite his ebullient ease with working-class women.
For this play to fly, it is vital that we believe in Marlowe’s unstable identity. Von Schultze exceeds expectations, with spectacular transitions from the strutting dandy to a mass of stumbling awkwardness and constipated grins. It’s a delight to see Goldsmith’s witty commentary upon class and gender relations played out so convincingly. It allows a serious-minded critique of upper class sexual segregation to stand alongside all its delicious and cringe-inducing comic undertones.
Titus Crook is magnificent as the shrivel-mouthed, vinegar-voiced, appalled old Hardcastle. Von Schultze’s Marlow and Waterhouse’s Hastings have a splendid line in easy, finely-tuned repartee. They prevent the badinage ever slipping into laddiness, preserving just the right degree of gentlemanly wit.
Apt to feel relentlessly domestic (since virtually every scene occurs indoors) the decision to stage She Stoops To Conquer outdoors gives it renewed vigour, its updated period a freshness and relevance. If gorgeous costumes, a rich script and cracking cast don’t do it for you, the themed bar serving Pimms and Bellinis might just tip the scales on what promises to be a dreamy Midsummer night.
She Stoops To Conquer will run Wednesday-Saturday of 4th week at7.30 pm with a Saturday matinee.