Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, a comedy of manners, premiered in London in 1777, a year in which the British needed a good laugh. It’s replete with hypocrisy, supposed infidelity, mistaken identities and eavesdropping — behaviors learned long before muskets were raised and the Delaware was crossed.
The play is the next fare at LA Theatre Works, which records five performances this week for later broadcast on public radio stations around the country, including 89.3 KPCC. Among the cast is British actor Julian Sands whose personal connection to Sheridan is traced directly through the generations, albeit by marriage, in a line that requires the word “great” to be written several times before the word “grandfather.”
“My wife [writer Evgenia Citkowitz],” Sands says by telephone from London, “is descended from Sheridan [1751-1816]. It’s not the reason why I’m doing this show but it does hold a sentimental effect on me because we have Sheridan’s snuff box, which I’ll carry in my pocket in each performance.”
An actor often remembered for his role as Jon Swain, a British journalist, in the Khmer Rouge regime war story The Killing Fields (1984), Sands finds deep appreciation for Sheridan’s writing style. “I appreciate the power of his language and outrageousness of his characters. Sheridan was a great stylist but certainly borrows from the Bard.”
It’s Sheridan’s feel for humanity that intrigues Sands. “He takes it beyond caricatures onto an emotional level. Many 18th century playwrights wrote what became known as ‘comedies of manners’ but few were good enough to survive. Sheridan’s have.”
A sophisticated approach to poking fun at one’s own coterie, a comedy of manners typically allows its plot to lie subservient to wit and language, an approach that long preceded the United States’ retort through the Jerry Springers and Jon Stewarts we know today. As for Sheridan’s outrageousness, “You have to look to his characters to see how little hidden there is. Lady Sneerwell, Snake, Mrs. Whiplash, Mr. Benjamin Backbite, Mrs. Candle. There is a Mozart-like brilliance in the situations that are both farcical and poignant.”
Sands plays Joseph Surface, one of two brothers who are potential heirs of a wealthy, long-absent uncle’s fortune. When the uncle returns incognito to test their characters, Joseph soon establishes himself as the oilier, more hypocritical of the nephews. He’s caught balancing his many deceptions in the famous “screen scene.”
Reading the play and considering all its elements throughout its five acts is comparable to examining a piece of cloth in depth — you pick it up, hold it under a magnifying glass, identify each thread in a square inch. The same kind of handiwork is visible as Sheridan weaves a tale that tests the limits of honor, trust, duplicity and cattiness among many characters.
“What I love about performing with LA Theatre Works,” says Sands, “is it’s a real revelation. I love to see how magical the transformation is when the imagination is left to fill in scenery, ambience, props and so forth.” Actors perform shows with script in hand before a line of microphones, beside a Foley artist. “It makes me think of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space.”
The 85-year-old Brook, who has directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company and won Emmy, Tony and Ibsen awards, wrote the book — really, a series of lectures — on theater’s four levels of existence: deadly, holy, rough and immediate. It was a time when critics decried theater’s imminent demise in the face of television’s gaining popularity and reach. He contends that theater is inherently a part of humanity’s existence and that it rises again when faced with near death.
For Sands, strip theater of its furniture and clutter and you have “a real transformation in one’s consciousness. Performances like these require the utter sincerity and commitment of the actor and the audience’s imagination.”
Sands recently saw King Lear at the Donmar Theatre in London. “They used an empty stage but for a chair,” he says, an empty space that shrouds actors in a clothed nakedness, if you will.
Los Angeles is Sands’ base camp. It accommodates his television work (Stargate SG-1, Law & Order and Smallville, for example). He admits to being somewhat lazy about seeing theater while in LA. “Usually I see a play when I’m motivated to see a particular work or actor. Elsewhere I’m more motivated — the hunger of a tourist. But LA has so many wonderful theater districts, including along Santa Monica Boulevard, Glendale, Venice, CTG [Center Theatre Group], the Geffen.” When in London, Sands says he tends to see more theater, including a recent RSC staging of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
He is quite drawn to the late British playwright Harold Pinter who penned ‘comedies of menace’ in the 1950s and ’60s and whose honors include the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Later this month (January 22, 7 pm) Sands is doing a benefit performance for Iyengar Yoga Institute in Los Angeles. “It’s a one-man show I’ve done before on Harold Pinter. It’s a Harold Pinter celebration.”
Sands draws principally on Pinter’s poetry and prose but also on his plays and other people’s remembrances. “I did it once before as a benefit for St. Thomas Church and one of the yoga leaders saw it and asked me to bring it to their benefit event. A lot of poetry is in it because [Pinter] said that much of what he wrote in his plays was channeled from another place. His poems came more from himself. After he died  I did it as a recital, or memorial, but it has since evolved.”
Several of Pinter’s poems stand out but the one that has the most metaphysical meaning for Sands is “I Know the Place.” What it lacks in length, says Sands, it boasts in power.
I know the place.
It is true.
Everything we do
Corrects the space
Between death and me
“Pinter gave me this poem on a piece of paper and I read it aloud. I asked him if this was a typo, if he really meant ‘connects the space.’ He gave me this Darth Vader look and said, ‘Just read it. One day you might understand.’”
But first, under Michael Hackett’s direction, Sands presents The School for Scandal for a live audience with Susan Sullivan and fellow distinguished Brits Jane Carr and Tara Summers. Coincidentally, and not without a hint of irony, the play reached American shores in time for the general who crossed the Delaware, George Washington, to claim it as his favorite.
The School for Scandal, presented by L.A. Theatre Works, opens Jan. 12; plays Wed.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2:30 pm; Sun., 4 pm; closes Jan. 16. Tickets:
$20-$49. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. (off the 405 Freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains, exit Skirball Center Dr.); 310.827.0889 or go to latw.org.