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Saturday, 09 February 2013 13:00

'The Magistrate' tickles the farcical bone

'The Magistrate' tickles the farcical bone tlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Written by Martha K. Baker
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  • Director: Timothy Sheader
  • Dates: Feb. 9 and 16, 2013

The National British Theater presents "The Magistrate" by Jove. It is currently on the boards of the Olivier Theater in London, but the Victorian farce was made available for viewing in movie theaters across America this winter as part of the digitally recorded series called National Theater Live.

"The Magistrate" is quite silly, maybe not as silly as "One Man, Two Guvnors," part of the series two years ago, but certainly "The Magistrate" is in the same vein of utter asininity. The whole play revolves around a lie, a little lie, but as the chorus sings, "It's the little lies that cause the most trouble." In this case that lie is about a woman's age. Agatha Posket has told her husband Aeneas that she is 31 when she is 36. As she says, "Our age must remain a mystery. Men want us for biology, not history."

That age change would not be a big problem except she then had to swipe five years from her son's age. Cecil, known as Ces, pretends to be 14, not 19, which means his smoking and gambling and flirting are grossly inappropriate. He even seduces his step-father to step away from the path of righteousness preferred by this lesser bureaucrat, a magistrate in a police district. Mr. Posket ends up in his step-son's rooms at a local hotel, under a table with his dear little wife, who's hiding from him. She had gone there with her sister, both of them assuming Irish names, to intervene with a man who was present at Ces' baptism. He could spill the baptismal beans about her real age when at the Poskets' for dinner the next night. The escapade to the hotel puts most of the company into court, with the magistrate having to decide the punishment.

It helps that the magistrate is played by John Lithgow, one of only a handful of American actors to tread the National Boards. He works so well with Nancy Carroll in the role of his younger wife, who keeps secrets and who shouts orders. The whole company of raffish actors dances well together, right down to knees bent in Keystone Kop fashion.
"The Magistrate," written by Arthur Wing Pinero in 1885, is a Victorian comedy, by Jupiter, within the tradition slamming doors and people who do not recognize each other in the merest disguises. It is loud and boisterous and funny and traditional. Under the direction of Timothy Sheader, it gallops with force and farce across Katrina Lindsay's marvelous sets, configured like pop-up books wrapping and tilting on the Olivier's huge thrust-style stage. "The Magistrate" comes to these shores through the amalgamation of playacting with digital recording.

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