I have not found a copy of the play version of Rose Tremain's Restoration, so instead I have read the book upon which the stage play was based. If anyone out there knows where I can obtain a copy of the play, please let me know!
The novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, follows the voyage of Robert Merivel, as he starts his life in the court of King Charless II. Merivel was a surgical student, however the King employs him to look after his dogs! He falls from grace, and the novel follows his attempts to try to regain favour with the King. It is a journey of self-discovery for Merivel who is a simple character, easily charmed by his opulent surroundings.
Merivel is materialistic and in awe of the King and deeply in love with the idea of society and status. The King believes Merivel is a half-wit that he can easily manipulate to his own purposes. This book reflects the contradictions of the time, but it also has a contemporary link with modern society and those who are trapped between wanting wealth, and what they have to relinquish in pursuit of this desire.
The King requires Merivel to marry his mistress Celia Clemmence on the understanding that this a marriage of convenience, and that Merivel is not to fall in love nor treat Celia as his wife. On this understanding, the King gives Merivel an estate, Bidnold in Norfolk, and Celia a house in Kew to which the King can conduct his secret liaisons from. Obviously, there would be no story if Merivel did not do the inevitable and fall in love with Celia. The King is obviously incensed, and so Merivel is banished by the King and so starts his downward spiral into poverty. He loses his home, his money and has to take refuge in a psychiatric hospital run by his old university friend, Pearce.
Pearce is the opposite of Merivel, and does not condone the hedonistic lifestyle to which Merivel aspires to. He is constantly telling Merivel that his lifestyle is sinful, however, he is hopeful that with the help of the Quakers, if he stayed at the hospital and honed his surgical skills Merivel would rediscover his medical vocation, and thus find a purposeful life which would make him happy. Merivel lets his desires take over from his head, and embarks on a secretive affair with one of the patients and gets her pregnant. Coincidentally Pearce dies, therefore there is no-one to fight for Merivel and so he and Katherine are expelled from the hospital and head towards London.
This is the time of the Great Plague, and therefore Merivel is required to continue practising medicine. Katherine gives birth to a baby girl, but tragically dies during labour. As well as the plague, it is also the time of the Great fire of London, and Merivel gets mixed up with trying to save an elderly lady from her burning home. It is this unselfish action which finely gets him the attention from the King which he has craved all of his life.
The title of the novel reflects both the period in which the novel is set, and the redemptive process Merivel goes through to end up back in Court. The novel has many elements of a farce, especially Merivel's partying and debauchery, and so it makes for a light hearted historically based piece of fiction. What it isn't is a factual portrayal of the time, and therefore some annoying historical inaccuracies need to be forgiven to enjoy the rest of the book.
I wasn't sure how well the book would transfer to the stage without being able to read the actual play. The play appeared to be in receipt of mixed reviews, but most stated that the play was slow paced, lacked direction and was ambiguous and confused. There was also discredit given to the stage settings, the actors being left to flounder on a virtually empty stage, which seems rather strange considering the opulent surroundings in the novel.
Whilst the reception of the play was weak, there were contradictory comments received about the acting. Some reports suggest Tom Burke was a "tour de force" and hardly ever off the stage during the 3 hour performance, whilst others described his portrayal of Merivel as a "grinning idiot delighted by his lack of self-knowledge".