Review – The Recruiting Officer – Donmar Warehouse

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As I walked into the Donmar Warehouse for The Recruiting Officer, I was amazed at what I saw: the theater was joyous inside! There were people lighting scores of candles and singing (and playing music) while they did so. It was like a party – soft golden candles, jolly music – had I gone into the wrong theater? No, same wooden floor, same shallow back, same crammed seats on the sides – it was certainly the Donmar I’ve formed a close relationship with over the years, only without the heavy overlay of gloom. What, was I not going to be getting a play about incest, obsession, and/or lies? I guess it just didn’t seem like the same old Donmar, but I was willing to give it a try.

As my reward, I got a positively jolly evening being walked through a classic play performed by a group of real pros who were entirely capable of making a 300 year old play come to life. Sure, some of the specifics have changed – recruiting officers don’t go into town stealing away the local labor force with a series of questionable promises now that they’re likely to get sued for breach of contract – but much of the underlying sentiments of loyalty to one’s gender and to one’s job over one’s affections seemed to hold true. I could see it being just as much a play set in Austen’s England, and, while it couldn’t really be done today (there’s not so much concern about finding a marriage partner with inheritable wealth, or the distinctions of behavior based on gender), the rules under which they were operating were laid out pretty clearly and then it became a bit of an anthropological study in the mentality of the time and how people sought to bend the barriers that constrain them in order to achieve their goals. And the goals are in high conflict (and high contrast): we have a woman and a man who want to get marriage proposals in from people they love (both flawed and undesirable in my eyes); then we had people (female and male) who sought to achieve social advantage over others. Finally, the recruiting officers seemed to have simple goals, which were, by hook or by crook, to get people to enlist in a volunteer army. This provided a far clearer picture of the times than poor old Bingo at the Young Vic: we had people who wanted to escape bad marriages, people who wanted money, people who didn’t want to fight at all but were clearly tricked, and people who had fantasies of a better future (aided in this case by a crooked fortune teller) that they thought would be theirs in the army.

Meanwhile the recruiting officers themselves came off as an immoral pack of crooks, willing to tell nearly every lie (to man and magistrate) to fill their ranks: I’m sure it was all exaggerated (and was certainly comic) but it all had an undertone of truthfulness that was chilling. Yet they created a compelling counter-drama to the typical “oh will this warring couple finally get over it and come together” as well as the “seen this before” trope of “woman dresses as a man and is completely unrecognized by all and sundry” that could have made this a cookie-cutter drama lost in the slop called “Restoration Comedy.” I had a darned good laugh at it all, especially Mark Gatiss’ foppish Mr Worthy (with audience interaction) and the sharp Nancy Carroll as Silvia (did her father really recommend she just “hook up” with an officer?). Tobias Menzies, however, came off most unsympathetically in the role of Captain Plume – not that he wasn’t a believable jerk but I couldn’t see why Silvia had any interest in him. And the first half of the play seemed a bit slow and I was drifting off just a bit while the officers were working their way through bamboozling the local underemployed. However, it all ended quite nicely, I enjoyed myself greatly, and I felt like the 15 quid I spent on my side view seat was rewarded with top performances. All this and I got to leave at 10:10? Well played, Josie O’Rourke, well played.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 16th, 2012. The show continues through April 14th.)

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