The Magistrate Review-A Victorian Time Machine

A recent production by The National Theatre in Great Britain of Arthur Wing Pinero's 1885 farce, The Magistrate, was recently transmitted at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. The play is a beautifully engineered piece of work, firmly steeped in late Victorian social sensibilities, and its comedy comes not from the fact that the audience can relate to the characters and their situations, for it is helplessly archaic in that regard, but from the timeless qualities that misunderstandings and mixups cause, a testament to the power of the genre of farce, one for which the English have always had a special gift. The play concerns a domestic scenario in an upper-middle class London household in the 1880's, where a hopelessly naïve magistrate with a high sense of propriety, Aeneas Posket (John Lithgow), has married the recently widowed Agatha (Nancy Carroll), who, in a fit of vanity, lied to Posket about her real age, shaving five years off her real age of 36 to make herself 31. Her son Cis Farringdon (Joshua McGuire), is a casualty of his mother's actions, because his age is reduced from 19 to 14 (Cis's not knowing his age is explained away by his mother, who says she kept Cis's real age from him all his life in case she ever needed to pull a stunt like this), so his younger age belies his actions, such as the lasciviousness he feels towards the family's music instructor, Beatie Tomlinson (Sarah Ovens), as well as the vices he's developed, such as gambling and carousing at the Hotel des Princes, the setting of the play's climactic farcical scene.

Beverly Rudd as Popham, Sarah Ovens as Beatie Tomlinson, and Joshua McGuire as Cis Farringdon in The Magistrate

Posket is looking forward to entertaining an old school friend, Colonel Lukyn (Jonathan Coy), who is, by coincidence, a former comrade of Agatha's late husband, an army officer and Cis's godfather. Terrified that the Colonel will give away Cis's, and consequently, her own, ages, Agatha steals away to visit the colonel with her sister,  Charlotte
Christina Cole), to the Hotel des Princes, where Posket has been lured away by his wily stepson, hellbent on having an exciting night out. The play climaxes when the characters all attempt to hide from the police, who are on the lookout for the scofflaws who have committed the serious crime of being in such an establishment after midnight. The characters attempt to hide from the police in the dark, and Posket and Agatha hide together under the table, the magistrate unaware that the person with whom he has sought cover from the law in the dark is his wife. This is only the first half of the play, as the second half deals with the consequences that arise from the horrifying total of all of the little lies told in the first half.

Christina Cole as Charlotte, Nancy Carroll as Agatha, and Jonathan Coy as Colonel Lukyn in The Magistrate

In many ways, The Magistrate is hopelessly outdated. It is Victorian to its core, but Pinero's scenario contains elements of subversiveness even within that milieu. After all, Posket, the play's greatest embodiment of propriety, is incredibly naïve, and most of the characters in his home are able to run circles around him. His wife is not only able to deceive him about her age, but she's able to convince him that she is innocently tending to a sick friend while she secretly goes to visit the Colonel so that she can convince him to deceive her husband even further. Her son, Cis, is able to play everyone he comes into contact with for fools, taking his stepfather's money at cards and convincing him to foot the bill for their evening on the town. Posket, for all his ludicrousness, is hardly innocent; he may have to be deceived into a night out, but once there, he loosens up quickly enough. His belief in his own propriety is such that, once he knows that his wife had lied to him, he's able to exclaim, with conviction, that she “had lied to him while he was at home sleeping!...Or rather, should have been!” Pinero's play is far closer to the real world; it is one conditioned not by a Victorian worldview such as Jane Austen's, in which a breach of propriety is literally unimaginable, but rather by Dickens, in which the realities of the world are always present, but propriety wins out. However, that acknowledgement was as subversive as one could get in Victorian times, and Pinero's environment is constructed accordingly.

Nancy Carroll as Agatha and Christina Cole as Charlotte Verrinder in The Magistrate

As someone unfamiliar with the conventions of British theatre, I did find the approach of the cast to be somewhat jarring. The actors are highly theatrical; I suspect that even for an English audience, the acting must have seemed slightly absurd. However, their lack of subtlety is fully in line with the scenario they've been given. Keeping with the archaic nature of the play, the cast is not afraid to go over the top. This is perhaps the reason why John Lithgow was able to fit in so well in the lead role of Posket. This was his first production with a British theatre company, detailed in a piece Lithgow himself wrote for the New York Times, and though he may have had difficulty with the terminology used in London's theatre, he certainly didn't have to make any changes to his acting style. You're not going to walk away from a Lithgow performance, whether it's on stage, on film, a voiceover, or on TV, feeling cheated. He acts with his whole body, using his one-of-a-kind features, his long limbs and long expression, and he comes at the audience. Acting is an exhausting, physical and visceral experience for Lithgow, and Posket suits him just fine. The rest of the cast is more or less equally absurd, but they're absurd in the service the controlled madness of farce. As Cis, Joshua McGuire has the most fun of anyone in the cast; he plays the hormonal, vice-ridden brat to the hilt, particularly when he's exploiting his hopelessly overmatched stepfather. I suspect McGuire must have been chosen for his physique; he's unmistakably grown-up facially, but he's very short. Contrasted against the tall, gawky Lithgow, Cis's dominance of Posket seems even funnier. As Agatha, Nancy Carroll is a confident woman whose smarts seemed to have evolved to match her vanity. The rest of the cast is well suited to comedy, though as Lukyn, Jonathan Coy was a bit over the top even for this play; I found his performance to be a bit needlessly blustery.

John Lithgow as Posket and Timothy McGuire as Cis Farringdon in The Magistrate

"The Dandies" in The Magistrate

The production was directed Timothy Sheader, who must be taken to task for inserting musical numbers featuring various male and female “dandies” to comment on the action. I found the songs to be distracting, the conception of the dandies to be absurd, and the comments the songs made on the action to be gratutitously anachronistic. The audience doesn't need to have it explained to them that little white lies can lead to big trouble, or that all a woman has, in the Victorian framework, with its “cult of womanhood”, is her age; I wish Sheader had had second thoughts about these touches and abandoned them. The production, designed by Katrina Lindsay,  was mostly traitional, using fairly conventional period sets and costumes. In a featurette that was shown during the interval, Lindsay explained her inspiration for the sets came from pop-up books; as a result, during the play, the changing sets rotate, one set disappearing down beneath the stage, while another pops up behind it. I found this touch to be rather clever, and in later scenes, the sets became increasingly asymetrical, another slightly unusual but effective decision. There is no question that The Magsistrate is an artifact of an outdated time, complete with archaic values and situations, but as far as artifacts go, it's been preserved fairly well.

The Magistrate will be shown again on February 10 in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Photos: Courtesy of The National Theatre

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