Josie Rourke begins her stint as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse with late Restoration comedy from 1706, The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. The set is simple, yet effective. The stage is lit with hundreds of candles, presenting the notion of a simple life, but not a bad one. As audience members took to their seats, onstage a pre-show cluster of townsfolk entice you into early, 18th-century Shrewsbury with traditional folk music. They involve audience members enthusiastically, encouraging them to clap along before the most subtle allusion to disruptive mobile phones is made, as the actor-musicians parody various universal ringtones with numerous classical instruments, achieving peels of laughter.
Mackenzie Crook plays a wonderfully scheming Sergeant Kite. His husky voice and roll of parchment on which he lists all his illegitimate children and their mothers, make for a grotesquely slimy characterisation of Kite, while the honourable Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies) comes across as a sickly charming, sycophantic, womaniser. The plot revolves around the extreme lengths the two recruiting officers take to slyly trick new recruits into enlisting. This varies from giving two crowns ‘disguised’ as ‘gold pictures of the queen’ to two simple townsfolk (a trick often used to prove a young man’s ‘volunteering’ to serve the Crown), to feigning the role of a fortune teller, who promises prosperous and exciting futures in army life to naive young men. Yet, for Farquhar, this was no comedic sketch. He joined the army and became a recruiting officer himself in 1704, thus basing his play on real experiences and his precise knowledge of the ways of a recruiting officer.
The complex and intertwining web of love affairs is no less confusing when watching the play, as it ends up in a tangled mess reminiscent of what can only be described as a comedy of errors. The dramatic irony, however, only adds to the charm of the production. The melodramatic Melinda (Rachael Stirling), clad in an equally melodramatic canary yellow dress festooned with silk bows, is either full of glee or full of woe, depending on the stage of her love conquest, and her maid Lucy, played by Kathryn Drysdale, is only too willing to profit from this. Silvia (Nancy Carroll) on the other hand, clandestinely dressed as a young man, brings authority to the stage as she attempts to override her father’s objections towards her fancy for Captain Plume.
Despite the play’s being labelled as a late Restoration comedy, it must be noted that although primarily a comedy, this play has dark and deceptive undertones. Some directors tend to brush over the fact that this play is about war, but Rourke ensures that this crucial point is not forgotten. Throughout the play, the musical townsfolk sing intermittent choruses of ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, preventing the audience from forgetting that these men are imminently marching to their deaths. A most poignant ending sees a line of townsfolk-come-soldiers reduce one by one, as they lay down their instruments and salute, marching off into the distance with watery eyes.