Writer: Pierre Marivaux
Translator: Martin Crimp
Director: Paul Miller
In these days, few of us have servants and that is a blessing if judged by the conniving bunch in Pierre Marivaux’s 18th Century anti-romantic comedy, The False Servant. The French writer’s play in this translation by Martin Crimp was seen previously at the National Theatre in 2004 and director Paul Miller’s revival looks well merited.
The first servant to appear and then disappear is Frontin (Uzair Bhatti). He is despatched to Paris by his master, the Chevalier, and he recruits former acquaintance, Trivelin, a once wealthy man who has fallen on hard (and debauched) times, as his temporary replacement. Before leaving, he informs Trivelin that the Chevalier is actually a woman and also a servant, her disguise being part of a plot to stop the forthcoming marriage of heartless nobleman, Lelio (Julian Moore-Cook), to the elegant but gullible Countess (Phoebe Pryce).
Will Brown revels in the seediness of his Trivelin, his every word spiked with impudence. He alone appears as a dishevelled down-and-out, while all around him are attired in smart, modern day outfits. Lizzy Watts is a not so masculine but ruthless Chevalier, flirting with the Countess sweetly and thwarting the dastardly Lelio without mercy. Many playwrights, Shakespeare included, would allow their cross-dressing heroines to show a softer side, but Marivaux does not go there. Affairs of the heart take a distant second place to affairs of the bank balance in this play’s relentlessly cynical humour.
Silas Wyatt-Barke chips in as Arlequin, Lelio’s scheming, heavy drinking servant. During Miller’s tenure as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre, shortly coming to an end, many of his own productions have been distinguished by memorably strong ensemble playing. That happy tradition continues here. The play’s ridiculous plot may be too convoluted to follow, but the dexterous wit of Marivaux/Crimp’s dialogue enlivens it and bang-on performances carry it along at a breezy pace.
Marivaux could not have known 21st Century attitudes towards gender and relationships, but Crimp and Miller certainly do and they squeeze every drop of innuendo out of the characters’ antics. The False Servant’s promise of a couple of hours of non-stop fun is not a deception; in that respect, the play is the genuine article.
Runs until 23 July 2022