Director and translator Neil Bartlett is virtually alone in London in using the theatre he runs to explore the theatrical repertoire beyond the English-speaking shores of the UK and the Americas on a regular basis. In the process, he's becoming a one-man European drama factory and, whilst his tastes often tend towards the earnest - as witness his production of Heinrich von Kleist's The Prince of Homburg in February - the results are sometimes exhilarating, as witness the current production of his translation of Pierre Marivaux's The Island of Slaves.
This 18th-century comedy about social class - in which two pairs of shipwrecked servants-and-masters are washed up on an island where the prevailing social order has been overturned and they are forced to switch roles and identities - is a somewhat preachy but infinitely playful evening of theatrical game-playing. Like Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, there's a lot of bitter, bitchy name-calling; but unlike that play, recrimination here leads ultimately to reconciliation.
And for his new production, Bartlett intricately involves us in the game in the Lyric's completely reconfigured stage and auditorium. The audience face each other on two sides of a sand-covered platform that covers the existing stalls area. A ragbag assortment of chairs and the existing theatre seating is ranged around it and, from where I was sitting on what used to be the stage itself, you can dimly discern the various levels of the classic auditorium.
Immediately, you're thrown into an alien world, as the characters themselves are; and as their roles change, so does ours. Suddenly, we feel as if we're participating, not merely observing. It's a fascinating shift of perception, absolutely true to a play that marks out its territory with precision and power.
Bartlett also draws out beautifully nuanced, hilariously funny performances from his cast. Anita Dobson may have lately found Angie - the character for whom she became famous in EastEnders - belatedly killed off many years after she left that show, but she continues to prove what a terrific, underrated stage actress she is, as a servant so previously put-upon by her mistress that she finds it hard to forgive when the tables are turned. But she gets her vengeance with a wonderfully astute impersonation of her mistress, who is played with calculated disdain by the equally terrific, and even more negligently underrated, Amanda Harris.
The male pairing have less showy parts, but Gregor Truter, forced to swap roles with Guy Dartnell's Harlequin, offers a wonderful study in the pricking of his upper-class hauteur.
Short (it runs only 75 minutes) but sweet, The Island of Slaves is a delightfully observant evening that offers food for comedy as well as for thought.
- Mark Shenton