In Chichester’s season of con artistes, Moliere’s Scapino is the trickster par excellence. Spinning elaborate schemes and scams has given him job satisfaction all his ‘working’ life. The con’s elegance and success is as much his reward as any material gain.
As the play opens, the world weary Scapino finds himself called out of ‘retirement’ in response to the anguished pleas of two young men to help outwit their fathers so they can marry their true loves. He agrees more because he’s a workaholic who can’t resist a challenge than for any offered reward.
Of course no testy, rich father stands a chance against the master and it’s the audience’s delight to watch him at work. And at Chichester it’s our delight to watch a master director at work, the extraordinary Roumanian theatre practitioner Silviu Purcarete.
This is one of Moliere’s later plays and although it betrays his commedia dell’arte roots, Scapino is more sophisticated and indeed higher status than Arlechinno, the cunning servant of those scenarios. Purcarete’s genius is to tap into that sophistication, the delicate balance between Scapino’s world weariness and his temptation to action, and to externalise it in the playing style, the setting and especially the characterisation of Scapino himself.
From the moment he unexpectedly reveals himself on Helmut Stuermer’s extraordinarily evocative and mysterious set – a run-down café bar with sinister nooks and crannies – Richard McCabe’s wonderfully authoritative Scapino oozes the superiority born of the proven knowledge that he’s more than a match for slower-thinking mortals.
His tendency towards contempt for the simple motivations of those around him does not rule out a streak of self-disgust and the café’s teetering piles of chairs seem to presage his self-destruction. Just as he choreographs his scams, so Purcarete choreographs the action, juxtaposing the fast and furious precision of farce with a darker, slower more hypnotic pace.
In this he’s beautifully served by Vasile Sirili’s haunting music, and the intelligence of the performances. Stephen Ventura and Kieran Hill are real quirky individuals rather than conventional young lovers, wonderfully cast for their contrasting physicality. In this they’re well-matched by Katherine Tozer’s warily intelligent child-woman Hyacintha and Alexia Healy’s assertively sluttish Zerbinetta.
Pip Donaghy and Steven Beard are genuinely scary parents – and masters. The plight of the unmarried adult child trapped in this authoritarian society is echoed by the plight of servants. Graham Turner’s sympathetically slow Silvester is subject to masters all too quick to alleviate their frustrations by handing out beatings far from mere slapstick. Christian Bradley’s saturnine Carle, barman moonlighting as Scapino’s aide and Darlene Johnson’s glorious Nurse – a dea ex machina – deserve special mention – as do the café’s revolving doors – practically characters in their own right.
- Judi Herman