Words by SAMI-JO ADELMAN
In 1724, Pierre Marviaux wrote La Fausse Suivante (The False Servant), a play that examined tales of frivolity, money, indulgent romance and flexible morality with strong Commedia dell’Arte influences. In 2004, Martin Crimp embellished it with sexual innuendo and meta-theatricality in a witty translation. Yet the 290-year-old comedy remains something of an oddity. Like bad sex, no amount of wit can detract from the monotonous pace and lack of climax.
Everything hinges on a young woman’s disguise as a chevalier (Charlotte Cousin) as she comes to witness the avariciousness of her potential future husband, Lelio (Thomas Pidd).
Sneakily, the chevalier befriends Lelio and he confides in her about his troubled situation. She agrees to rescue him from the marital clutches of a middle-aged countess (Jessica Vickers) by wooing the lady herself. Her apparent aim is to protect the countess’s money and expose Lelio’s deceitfulness. But is that her actual motive?
The action takes place in an imaginative stage space designed by Dann Barber, who has drawn conceptual influences from traditional royal garden settings. Complete with a grassy knoll, rose garden, cherub statue and marble bench, the stage is undoubtedly pretty, but completely impractical. It is difficult for actors to manoeuver about the grassy mound in period costume without fear of twisting an ankle. Nevertheless the costumes themselves (also designed by Barber) are truly magnificent and exceptionally well detailed.
Although it wrings out Crimp’s sexual nuances, Steele’s production is slow to transpire. The play is carried forward by the humorous Trevlin (Skyler Ellis), whose Jack Sparrow-esque demeanor is well played out. The drunken ramblings of Frotin (Charles Wu) in the second act are equally charming.
Ellis notes, “with such archetypal characters, the tendency towards pantomime presents itself”, and in fact, at the end of the show the characters break out into a beautifully harmonised song. Perhaps turning the play into a musical wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all… it may have aroused more climactic action.
Featured image credit: Dann Barber