The Way of the World, Donmar Warehouse, London, review: A comic masterpiece

Haydn Gwynne in 'The Way of the World': Johan Persson
Haydn Gwynne in 'The Way of the World': Johan Persson

James Macdonald's production of William Congreve's great Restoration comedy received an early blow when Linda Bassett, who was to have played Lady Wishfort, had to withdraw for personal reasons. But I am delighted to report that her replacement, Haydn Gwynne, is absolutely hilarious in the role of this wealthy, vain and silly woman who strives to act younger than she actually is.

There's a terrific mad nervous energy to her performance (she's got up like a pottily possessed rose bush) and she works marvels with Wishfort's cascades of coy, simpering, self-deluded excess. Hectically trying out various becoming postures in which to be discovered by a (phoney) admirer, she falls right off her chaise longue. “Nothing is more alluring than a levee from a couch in some confusion,” she insists undeterred. There's the odd twinge of pathos, too, as when she examines her cracked face in a mirror.“I look like an old peeled wall” she concludes.

This is an immensely stylish account of the play – presented in period (the excellent design is by Anna Fleischle) and its elaborate dialogue spoken with a wonderful throwaway poise and penetration. And that's a real boon because the piece never obliges you with an easy-to-read tourist's map of its maze of social and sexual subterfuge. You have to pick thinks up on the hop. In this thicket of interrelatedness you are likely to encounter, say, the half-brother to a sister who happens to be the mother of someone else's wife. There's a complex network of grudges because of past love affairs or those now rancidly discovered. The gallant Mirabell (a sparklingly intelligent Geoffrey Streatfeild) has incurred the wrath of Lady Wishfort who has found out that he paid insincere court to her as a shield for his interest in her niece Millamant (Justine Mitchell). Given that Wishfort has control of half of Millamant's fortune, her enmity is not encouraging.

There's a crispness and clarity to the way this production highlights the contrast between Mirabell and his superficially similar fellow-gallant, Fainall. Tom Mison shows you a disturbing, almost neurotic meanness of spirit behind the studied languor of a ruthless individualist who will stop at nothing (even defaming his wife) to get his hands on all the Wishfort money. Though he has done unfortunate things in his past, Mirabell now appreciates the humane value of contracts.

We see this in the great scene where Millamant confronts him and lists her stringent conditions of marriage. Justine Mitchell is enchanting in the part – full of the flippant, teasing airiness (with Irish lilt in the voice) of a thoughtful woman whose compulsively half-joking manner protects the seriousness of her views about independence. “These articles subscribed,” she tells Mirabell, “if I endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife.” It's a marvellous episode where two kindred spirits skirmish their way towards some degree of sexual equality and it is exquisitely played here.

This is the funniest version of the play I have seen. There's terrific verve to sequences such as the one where a disguised servant (Alex Beckett) pretends to be a suitor for the palpitating Wishfort. And the superb cast highlight the delicious absurdities and buoyancy in the dialogue. Fisayo Akinade is particularly funny as the fop Witwoud, wreathed in affected smiles and dispensing ceaseless baffling gems. He tells us, for example, that Wishfort hates Mirabell “worse than a Quaker hates a parrot”. No one who sees Macdonald's production will be left in any doubt that The Way of the World is a comic masterpiece.

Until 26 May (