In a plot that also rivals Shakespeare for labyrinthine twists, Princess Leonide disguises herself as a young nobleman to win the heart of Agis, heir of the erstwhile ruling family her father deposed. He's been hidden away and educated since boyhood by the austere philosopher Hermocrate and his sister Leontine, protected from the power of both the princess and the flesh. Leonide intends to restore Agis to the throne and place herself in his power as his wife, a plan that would have raised eyebrows in the cynical society of 18th-century Paris. To achieve this, she sets out to seduce brother and sister, aided both by their servants, sweetened with lavish bribes, and her own (also disguised as a man).
Most of this we learn in a breathless prologue delivered by Anna Hewson's resourceful and ardent Leonide and Megan Whelan's lively servant Corine. In a delightful 'Watermill' touch, we eavesdrop on them in the theatre's enchanting gardens, led indoors by the fiddling of actor/musician Alice Barclay.
There's no denying the magical quality of much of Jonathan Munby's in-the-round production, thanks to Barclay's attractive musical accompaniment and Mike Britton's stunning formal garden sets indoors, effectively lit by Oliver Fenwick, and perfectly complementing the real gardens outside.
Equally, there's no denying the intelligence of the performances, in particular brother-and-sister act Paul Webster and Dinah Stabb who start as stern killjoys, then succeed in winning sympathy as they melt under the power of love doomed to disappointment. Clive Kneller and Alan McMahon provide fun as commedia dell'arte servants and Gary Shelford is a noble ingenue Agis. And you have to gasp at Hewson's ability to impart an astonishing volume of words with aplomb and charm.
It's this verbiage that can be a barrier to engaging with the play and its sentiments. Despite Martin Crimp's sprightly new translation, after 90 minutes of the first half, I longed for actions to speak louder than words. Happily, the shorter second half offered the delights I was missing, especially Katherine Taylor's cleverly choreographed country dancing, full of the subtext of passion and yearning.
- Judi Herman