THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Marivaux’s sparkling comedy of manners, from 1730, is one of France’s most performed classics. Here, it has been newly adapted by Quentin Beroud and Jack Gamble in a production which gaily ramps up the farcical elements.
In a clever summertime solution to the Covid regulations, the enterprising Arcola Theatre in Dalston has staged it in a new outdoor covered performance space and bar dubbed ‘Arcola Outside’ which has been designed by theatre designer Jon Bausor. Great for a warm evening.
The plot centres on Sylvia (Ellie Nunn), a haughty society girl anxious to get a peek at the husband, Dorante (Ammar Duffus), being proposed for her by her father, Lord Orgon (David Acton). To get a better sense of him, she decides to swap places with her maid, Lisette (Beth Lilly). What she doesn't know is that her suitor has similar ideas and has also changed clothes with his chauffeur, Harlequin (Michael Lyle), effectively pulling the same trick. So, when they all meet, you have the witty spectacle of two posh folk disconcerted by their sudden attraction to a supposed member of the lower orders. In the same way the servants are given the chance to parodically ape their masters.
Whenever Marivaux has been tackled lately it’s been translated as farce, be it the Feydeau or the ‘Carry On’ kind, probably because directors latch onto it being about Class. This works to an extent but ultimately does Marivaux a disservice. Here, they declare that the play is Commedia dell’arte (and director Gamble employed a consultant to drill the cast) but it isn’t really. Of course, that popular Italian style did hugely influence French playwrights of the time and this play does employ many of the tropes of Commedia dell’arte (masters and servants, disguise, trickery) but, it isn’t the whole story.
Even in this vibrant and witty translation by Beroud and Gamble, the dialogue reveals the play to have many more shadings and presents a much more rueful exploration of the game of love than you’d derive from your standard “oops there go my bloomers” farce. Here, that witty wordplay, which is so integral to it in the original French, seems rushed so that the cast can get onto the next bit of slapstick, which is mostly not as interesting, and which unbalances the piece.
The cast however are uniformly warm and engaging and keep the whole thing afloat despite doing battle with outdoor noise (music, traffic, seagulls!). Nunn who is tall and commanding, and has the diction of Diana Rigg, is a pure delight as Sylvia. Lilly as her feisty servant has pristine timing and engagingly milks every aside. She also manages a side-splittingly funny recreation of a fight on East Enders.
Among the men, Duffus lends depth to Dorante, the hardest role because he is so staid, and Acton gives a spirited, kindly, Lord Orgon. He’s decked out like one of those old duffer presenters of afternoon antiques programmes. Louie Whitemore’s costumes throughout are witty. When Lyle is performing as his master, he’s dressed him in bling Essex boy ‘summer casual’ which is all far too tight and is perfect.
The play makes the case, then very subversive, that true love is stronger than reason or the stifling limitations of class. Interestingly too, the servants are really strong characters here. They have agency. Not bad for 1730. This is a midsummer night’s joy.