It could have been the scorching heat, the decision to move the wine into the reading room, the fact it was the last meeting of the year or the fact that we were performing Sheridan’s ‘School for Scandal’ to each other - but something put the the Dr Johnson Reading Circle in a festival mood.
Cast lists had been sent out in advance; everyone had the chance (if they wished) to step out of their normal boundaries and try different roles. Perfectly lovely men played sneering, gossipy women whilst perfectly lovely women played hypocritical, conniving men. A prudent curator became a spendthrift wastrel and I had the opportunity of exploring my inner coquette.
The plot is one of those things that makes sense while being swept along but almost impossible to recount in the cold light of day. There’s an old husband and his young wife, trying to work out how to be married, there are two brothers whose characters are being tested by their rich uncle in disguise, there’s a young innocent who is loved by both the brothers and there is the school for scandal, an intimate group of male and female gossips who love nothing more than to spoil a good reputation.
What was surprising, is how Oscar Wilde-ish much of Sheridan’s dialogue is. One member of the school explains that she destroys reputations in retaliation for her own being tattered and is told that, ‘nothing could be more natural.’ Another member of the group constantly spreads gossip in the same breath as denouncing it, while yet another member declares, “ I have no malice against the people I abuse. When I say an ill-natured thing, ’tis out of pure good humour.” A character called Mr Snake who is paid to do a good deed and begs that no-one else is told of the good deeds as it would spoil his reputation. This combination of restoration-comedy-esque intrigue and Wildean wit creates a sense of pleasure and abandon.
The characters’ actions are not completely realistic, this would make a truly ludicrous novel, but on the stage, with the quick pacing (many of the lines are written to interrupt each other) smooth over gaps in plausibility and set up gags and set-pieces galore.
I had particular pleasure (as Mrs Candour) in rattling off long, digressive speeches full of nasty gossip and weak admonishments against gossip. I also had the joy (as Lady Teazle) in alternately flirting and arguing with my husband, Sir Peter. However, my favourite scene was probably one I wasn’t in, where Charles Surface (the profligate but honest brother) sells his collection of family portraits to his uncle, who is in disguise to test him.
We enjoyed reading the play so much, that when our allotted time ran out, we took our books to the local pizza place and read there, laughing as cues were lost in mouths of mozzarella and reaching a triumphant conclusion while the staff were ready to kick us out. I do feel we should have included the epilogue (as it was a long speech for me).
‘School for Scandal’ is genuinely enjoyable, and even fairly scandalous. There are performances of it in Finsbury Park until July 7th, which it might be worth getting tickets for. If I can’t, and if you can’t, I recommend doing what we did - get some friends over, pour some refreshments and read it together. It certainly worked for us.