Just as there are horses for courses, so there are productions that are tailor-made for a particular venue. Lee Hall's adaptation of this Carlo Goldoni comedy, with its slapstick humour and opportunities for audience participation, would have been huge hit at the Globe, where it would have been certain to brighten up a summer evening.
As it is here, an enthusiastic cast milks the play for all it's worth, delighting a predominantly young audience. And Tim Supple's fast-moving direction and Robert Innes Hopkins' catwalk design bring out the best of the play.
The plot is simple: a young Venetian woman, Clarice, can't marry her lover, Silvio, because she has been betrothed to one Rasponi, who has returned from the dead to claim his prize. But he is a she, Rasponi's sister Beatrice, who has come to Venice to find her lover Florinda. The complications arise when Truffaldino, a serving man, in an attempt to get double pay and rations, hires himself out to both the disguised Beatrice and Florinda and spends the rest of play trying to serve two masters.
In the introduction to the text of the play, Hall points out that the part of Truffaldino would have been created for a zanni who would have been expected to improvise great chunks of the play. The coxcombed Jason Watkins certainly lives up to expectations, delighting the audience with a succession of ad libs, pratfalls and acrobatics. The only problem is that sometimes the pudding is slightly over-egged and a bit of business is stretched just too far (this production lasts about three hours, probably ten minutes too long).
The rest of the cast have a problem matching Watkins' lunacy, although Geoffrey Beevers as both a pompous lawyer and a cynical head waiter and Paul Bentall as Clarice's father, Pantalone, have a great deal of fun. Ariyon Bakare and Claire Cox make a well-matched Florinda and Beatrice and Orlando Seale is a hot-headed Silvio.
Hall's version plays fast and loose with the original text but rattles along at a furious pace. There's an awkward sounding feminist speech about the power that men hold which sits very oddly with the rest of play, but apart from that, this is a funny and idiomatic adaptation that is on par with the similar work Hall did rewriting Brecht's Mr Puntilla and his man Matti at the Almeida last year.
In particular, one speech of Truffaldino's where he declares that his working for two masters is a perfect example of downsizing had a ring of truth about it and revealed that for all the clowning, there's still a sharp edge to this play that Goldoni would certainly have relished.
Note: The following review dates from the play's original run at Stratford in December 1999.
If you are looking for a very funny evening full of witty invention, comic energy and excellent good humour, you need look no further than Tim Supple's production of A Servant to Two Masters. If you are interested in the history of theatre and the evolution of comedy, then this show is essential viewing. But it's worth seeing quite apart from that. It has enough innocent smut to keep the teenagers giggling and plenty of intelligent wit for the sophisticated adult. By the end of the evening, a general feeling of well-being united a diverse audience.
This is a new adaptation by Lee Hall of Goldoni's mid eighteenth-century play and it's a revelation. Before this, the best known English translation was a much distorted version devised as a star vehicle for Tommy Steele. Hall takes us back to Goldoni, and renders him in very modern colloquial English, which will probably quickly date, but is now freshly minted. This play marks the transition from the anarchic improvised comedy of the commedia dell'arte to the establishment fixed text which led on to the strict discipline of farce. This production gives us the best of both worlds. Andrea Cavarra of the Teatro del Vincolo ensures the commedia tradition is authentic. At time, you may yearn for a little more anarchy and spontaneity, but Supple keeps the action firmly under control and the discipline of Goldoni's text is always respected.
As the main clown, the Harlequin character Truffaldino, Jason Watkins establishes an endearing friendship with the audience and dazzles us with his visual humour. His love for the spirited maidservant Smeraldina (Michelle Butterly) avoids sentimentality and wins our hearts as well as hers. His simultaneous serving of two meals and satisfaction of his own hunger provides a bravura climax to the first half of the play - rarely can a spotted dick have given so much pleasure to so many!
One of the reasons the comedy works so well is that it is set against some very fine acting by the young lovers, notably Claire Cox and Ariyon Bakare. Their (temporary) anguish is played with absolute sincerity and deep feeling and it is this sense of realism which acts as the perfect counterpoint to Watkins' clowning.
The set design of Robert Innes Hopkins is brilliant in its invention and simplicity and ensures a fast moving evening. The history is fascinating, but mainly the evening is pure fun. So, if you are over twelve years of age, leave the panto for the kids and go for Goldoni.
A Servant to Two Masters (RSC) opened at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 15 December 1999 (previews from 8 December) and continues there in repertory until 22 January 2000; and at the Young Vic, London, 4 February - 11 March 2000.