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Tuesday, 17 February 2015 00:00

Sex, Money and the Art of Restoration Comedy


Written by 2 Year Course Student Will Gillham

An account of Will's experience of the Restoration Comedy block and performance

It's interesting when you think about it: theatre has been a stable part of culture since the dawn of civilisation and, yet, we forget about so many interesting periods of theatricality that can still hold a candle to the best Shakespearian soliloquies or Chekhovian performances. In fact, most people go straight from Shakespeare to the twentieth century when looking for good drama and completely miss out the period that had some of the dirtiest jokes, the wittiest writing, and, well, all the sex - The Restoration.

To sum up, the English Restoration was a period of great social change. Naturally, after years of strict Puritan rule in the late 1600s, the people of England were only too glad to welcome back their exiled King and, with him, alcohol, Christmas, and, of course, theatre. The King had learnt a lot from the much more sexualised and loose French forms of entertainment, and they were immediately installed into our society. That's right, there was actually a brief period in our English history where the French were admired. Crazy times. What this meant for the theatres was a huge increase of plays about sex, money and, with the radical introduction of women to the stage, a hell of a lot of corsets.

This was all explained to us in a fantastic workshop that got us to grips with the Restoration way of life. Catherine Weate gave a fascinating explanation of the wants and needs of the characters we would encounter (sex, money, and more sex), whilst Crispin Harris provided us with an extremely detailed timeline of the period. David Wylde's advice on approaching the text was an invaluable source that helped many of us get to grips with the language, and Granville Saxton's lecture on how to expand the moment and use 'business' on stage was both informative and entertaining. A special mention should also go to Darren Royston for his engaging introduction to period movement (it's all about showing off the calf muscles - the ladies love the calf muscles) and to Christopher Hawes for his fantastic, hands on lesson in successfully taking on the personas of Commedia characters. All in all, there was a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but it definitely paid off.

We performed two shows, both by John Vanbrugh - The Provoked Wife and The Relapse. As a performer in the latter, I can safely say it was definitely a different rehearsal process to any other I've experienced. David Wylde got right down to business with training our voices (vowels and consonants are more important than ever in Restoration comedy - Shakespeare's verse is child's play in comparison) and getting us to grips with our characters' desires and goals. In a sense, it's fairly simple: if your character doesn't want sex, they probably want money. Though they'll probably want sex later. With a bit more money. Fans and corsets were also the inevitable challenge for the girls; it's never easy to speak challenging dialogue whilst providing another readable language with the creative placing of your fan around your person (ironically, without ever fanning yourself) and then, y'know, struggling to breathe throughout all that. Then again, the guys had issues too: our shoes were a bit tight and, ok, yeah, the girls win this one.

Performing Restoration comedy was a thrill and the audiences seemed to love both shows - providing applause, cheers, and laughter throughout; instant gratification for actors! None of the corseted girls collapsed due to lack of oxygen and the fops successfully pulled off their witticisms underneath what can only be described as a plaster board of white makeup. All in all, a success! Very few other drama schools decide to put these shows on, which is a massive shame; this style of performance is the perfect way to train young actors how to engage with their primal desires and it completely transforms their physicality in such a bold way. All in all, to act in a Restoration comedy is a rare but unforgettable experience that I'd gladly embark on again.