Before a word is spoken of Martin Crimp’s witty new translation of Marivaux’s 1724 French comedy of sexual bad manners, Paul Brown’s gilded set – smoky mirror, glass walls, doors and floor of the Countess’ country chateau - sets the scene beautifully. Here is a rich world populated by shallow characters who, while constantly spying on one another, remain transfixed by their own reflections and selfish material zeal.
The audience can also catch the odd reflection of themselves in Brown’s polished set and, if that weren’t enough to draw them in, director Jonathan Kent’s clever production - in which Adrian Scarborough’s wily Trivelin first enters the auditorium as a theatregoer (“I thought I was seeing The History Boys”) and retakes his front-row seat at the denouement – makes it clear that we’re all involved in this particular form of courtship theatre.
Nancy Carroll oozes androgynous sex appeal as an heiress who masquerades as the male Chevalier in order to befriend and assess the true worth of her intended, Anthony Calf’s unapologetically calculating cad Lelio. She makes her conclusion quickly but is having so much fun in her cross-dressing guise that she can’t resist carrying on, supposedly to seduce the Countess in order to save her a broken heart and lost fortune at the hands of Lelio.
A complicated series of crosses and double-crosses - involving the lovers as well as their servants, Scarborough’s hilariously oily and opportunistic Trivelin and David Collings’ drink-sodden Arlequin – ensures there’s no such thing as either true love nor a smooth course here. But there is great fun in subverting both, no more so than in the energetic episode in which Trivelin recounts a moment of garden ardour between the Chevalier and the Countess.
Charlotte Rampling, making her belated UK stage debut to play the real Countess, captures little of the same energy. This ageless star still exhibits the qualities – those hooded eyes, languorous manner, inherent grace - that made her a 1960s screen siren, all of which make her equally believable now as a woman accustomed to the passionate attentions of men.
However, on stage, Rampling appears ill at ease and far too restrained in her performance, particularly in the closing scene when, abandoned by both lovers who watch on to the accompaniment of Jeremy Sams’ dark exit music, her prostrate Countess fails to fully register the cruelties of the game played at her expense. It’s the one false note in this excellent reclamation of The False Servant.
- Terri Paddock