Keir Mulcahey tells us about Ooook!’s production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate.
The Magistrate is a farce. In fact, it is so irredeemably, magnificently, unashamedly farce-like that there is no other way to truly describe it. It’s the classic Victorian sitcom, with all the plot twists, puns and dramatic irony (not to mention more diving under tables and behind doors than Scooby Doo) to match.
The joy of dealing with this kind of material is that it provides opportunities to play with stereotypes, themes and locations instantly recognisable to the British audience; raised, as we are, on Wilde, Blackadder and Thomas the Tank Engine. There’s the brusque Army officers, the no-nonsense Police Sergeant, the young dandy, the upstanding Lady avoiding scandal, the omniscient Butler and, horrifyingly, the French. Most of all, there is the detached and ridiculous life of the Victorian upper class, packed full of utter absurdity. Cementing the play in this world is essential, it simply does not make sense beyond this context.
There is, however, bucket-loads of room for interpretation. The absurdity of the comedy allows a certain irreverence towards the source material that would feel extremely out of place in a different show. The script makes for a hilarious base and has not been tampered with (much), but the cast have piled so much of their wit and creativity on top of it that the show you will see is as much theirs as Pinero’s.
This cloud cuckoo land of high society could have been used as pointed commentary, along the lines of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: ‘Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions.’ But Pinero is far more likely to poke fun at the author of Vanity Fair’s name for sounding like a puritan’s favourite cricket bat, than he is to make active social commentary. That is not to say the social dynamics are not fascinating to a modern audience. Part of the comedy is the triumph of topsy turvydom, a positive Saturnalia. At the play’s onset, Beatie is but the timid music mistress, fixed in her social station and displayed to the far superior dinner guests as almost a possession. By the play’s end however… Well, as they say in the theatre, you’ll just have to wait, you impatient sods.
But the thing that really makes this show is its building levels of misunderstanding and confusion. So grab your top hats, try to keep track of the mayhem and please, do not try this at home.
The Magistrate will be playing at the Assembly Rooms Theatre on the 5th, 6th and 7th December.