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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The False Servant
Cottesloe Theatre Summer 2004

This play is like a chocolate bonbon with an unusually tart centre. If you're prepared for it, the combination can be piquant, but there is a danger that the sourness will be an unpleasant surprise.

Marivaux's 1724 play, here in a new translation by Martin Crimp and a modern dress production, begins as light romantic comedy. An heiress disguises herself as a man in order to check out a potential husband. She very quickly discovers that he's a total cad, but then decides to continue the masquerade, partly to punish him and partly because she's just enjoying the power of the disguise. (The title refers to a quickly-dropped subplot in which a slimy servant discovers her secret and tries to blackmail her.)

The cad is currently wooing a rich countess, and our heroine decides to save the lady from his clutches, and here is where the play goes someplace other than light comedy. The way to foil the rotter is to become his rival, and while this doesn't really require making the countess fall in love with her, that's what the girl does, so that the play ends not just with the cad foiled (and the would-be blackmailer frustrated) but with the innocent lady broken-hearted.

Be prepared for the fact that the play is going to take a dark turn, and even to justify it by blaming the countess for being so easily moved from one lover to another, and you have a very complex dissection of the economics and power politics of romance. 

Be surprised, and you may find yourself disliking the heroine you've been cheering for all along and resenting a play that lured you into expecting something sweeter than you got.

Martin Crimp's translation occasionally grates with such modernisms as 'Been there, done that and got the T-shirt' and with a casual use of obscenity that seems out of place in designer Paul Brown's elegant drawing room and a production and performance style that stress slightly decadent elegance.

Nancy Carroll keeps the heroine attractive and sympathetic longer than her actions might warrant, contributing to the disorientation you might feel when she finally goes too far. Anthony Calf has little more to do than figuratively twirl his moustachios as the bounder, and Charlotte Rampling as the countess is handicapped through much of the play by having only serious scenes when all around her are being witty, but triumphs in the end by winning our sympathy just as the heroine loses it.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -The False Servant - National 2004