By Jean Anouilh
Translated and directed by Jeremy Sams
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Tuesday 12th May 2015
1983 was the last time we saw this play; naturally our memories had faded almost completely in that time. So we were glad to have this opportunity to see it again, and this production in the Minerva certainly gave us some very strong performances to remember.
For once we were towards the back just left of the centre aisle. Mind you, as the Minerva only goes back to row G, sitting in row F isn’t exactly a hardship. The auditorium was pretty full – not bad for a preview – and our position certainly gave me a good view of the set as we waited for the start.
The stage was covered with wooden floorboards running front to back. Various chairs, tables and stools were positioned around the stage, all draped in white cloth, and there were a series of huge shapes around the back of the stage also covered in cloth which I initially took to be mirrors: they weren’t. There was one mirror off to the left side with a drinks table beside it, and four intricate chandeliers above the stage. On the far right was a stand with a large white floral arrangement, while the far left corner was sectioned off with some trompe-l’oeil panels suggesting archways disappearing into the distance. The actual entrance was just beside these panels, and above them was a balcony area with a trelliswork balustrade incorporating some coats of arms. The plain green and white EXIT sign looked a bit incongruous amongst all this decoration. Behind all of this I caught glimpses of tree tops and a spiral of architecture which I presumed was a folly of some sort. The backdrop was mainly blue with hints of cloud. A couple of tall ladders stood on front of the large shapes, one on the left side and one more central.
There was music playing before the start, but I’ve no idea what. (Sadly, no mention in the program either.) It sounded classical with a modern twist, and conveyed a sense of triumphalism. With the entry of a man in a frock coat, the play was underway, and soon one of the cloths was removed to reveal an arched entrance, presumably to the garden, which the characters could use to access the stage. The other cloths were removed as the play went on, with the last one being removed during the interval; these openings suggested access to other parts of the house.
Although set in 1950, this work concerns the performance of a much earlier play by Marivaux, La Double Inconstance, so while the characters were always in period costume, the period varied considerably from scene to scene. The reason why this subsidiary performance was taking place at all was complicated, and I’ve no intention of trying to explain it here: all I need to mention is that the Count was using the performance as a way of seducing Lucile, the innocent governess of a horde of orphans (I did say it was complicated). His wife, the Countess, who had accommodated his philandering long ago, was seriously worried that this might be too much for their relationship to bear, and her close friend Hortensia, the Count’s lover, was piqued to find herself relegated to second place in the Count’s affections. Along with several other friends helping or hindering, the plot unravelled nicely, combining plenty of bitchiness from the aristocracy with some straight talking by the governess to show them all up.
One scene is set in the governess’ room, where Hero, one of the Count’s friends, had a go at seducing the governess himself. Instead of clearing the rest of the set, they simply placed a bed and a small chest within a rectangle of light and played the scene in that restricted space – a set within a set reflecting the play within a play: neat. With that scene over, it only needed Hero to make his final choice, and the play came to an end with him alone on stage, saying the name of the woman he had loved. It was a slightly downbeat ending which may have puzzled some people, but we felt it worked well enough and was appropriate given what had gone before. [Spoiler alert: We have since learned that earlier previews finished with a shot 4/6/15] The audience was enthusiastic, and with a bit more practice, this should be an even better experience.
There was plenty of humour, although it took a little while to establish the circumstances of the play and get the funny side across. Villebosse (Joseph Arkley) was a very enjoyable character, hopelessly infatuated with the Countess, and constantly rushing on stage in a temper to ask if the rehearsal was ever going to start. He was wearing a Harlequin costume and looked a right twit, so whenever he complained that he didn’t want to look a fool, we all laughed: too late, squire, much too late. Jamie Glover was commanding as the Count, and Niamh Cusack looked gorgeous as his wife, as well as being devious, manipulative and scheming – what more could we ask?
It was good to hear Katherine Kingsley without the American nasal tones which made her Lina so appallingly good in Singin’ In The Rain, and her Hortensia was a good match for the Countess. Simon Dutton played Damiens, the family solicitor and guardian to Lucile; he was against much that was going on and who left before the end. Relative newcomer Gabrielle Dempsey balanced Lucile’s lack of experience with strength of character, while Edward Bennett stole the second half as we learned what had driven Hero to spend all his time emptying bottles of expensive wine down his throat.
I suspect I might get even more out of this play if I knew the Marivaux one as well; I get the impression that Anouilh has given us a marvellous social commentary on the French aristocracy of both the 18th and 20th centuries, but my ignorance prevents me from confirming that. I will definitely be looking forward to seeing this production again, and if the Marivaux were to come our way in the future, we’ll be booking our tickets toute de suite.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me