"Thanks to Molière," wrote Jean Anouilh, "the true French theatre is the only one that is not gloomy, in which we laugh like men at war with out misery and our horror. This humour is one of France's messages to the world." Humour and linguistic elegance is certainly at the centre of Timberlake Wertenbaker's new translation of Anouilh's Leocadia, a hit in 1940 on the Parisian boulevards. In this lyrical fantasy, a prince whose lover, the famous diva Léocadia, has died tragically finds new romance with a young milliner who bears a striking resemblance.
Yet this is more than a tale of love lost and found, and after a lengthy (some may say, overlong) first act exposition, the play reveals itself to be about what in recent years has fashionably become known as 'false memory syndrome'- that is to say, some of our memories are true, some are a mixture of fact and fantasy, and some are just plain manufactured lies.
In Anouilh's absurdist, Alice in Wonderland world, Patricia Routledge's ultra rich dowager indulges her simpering lovesick nephew by recreating in the grounds of her chateau, the incidents, characters and places that formed part of his all-too-brief affair. Amanda, the naive milliner-ingenue is drafted in to complete the living memory. Well rendered in a somewhat declamatory musical comedy style by Catherine Walker, Amanda brings the prince and his barmy family and retinue down to planet earth. He finally realises that, in fact, there was little true affection between himself and his self-centred dream lover.
Under Edward Kemp's confident direction, the cast and Poppy Mitchell's attractive penny plain, tuppence-coloured set move about with an out-of-body fluidity to the accompaniment of cod Austrian-gypsy music. Routledge plays the Duchess as a sort of benign Lady Bracknell, although fans of Hyacinth Bucket will not be disappointed in her amusing relationship with Michael Jayston's put-upon Baron. Andrew Scarborough's wastrel prince catches just the right tone of vulnerability, and there's an excellent cameo from Timothy Bateson as the household's supercilious, knowing butler.
Inconsequential is an adjective that some may apply to this light, rather fluffy slice of absurdist farce, but beneath the gentle humour is an insightful commentary on the shaky belief we all have in our treasured memories and emotions.
While superficially it may appear so, this is not an easy play. During the five decades of his career, Anouilh partly adopted Sartre's existentialist views, but he was also influenced by other leading French writers of his time. Often his unsuccessful protagonist (as in Wild Orchids), idealistic and intransigent, is in conflict with the world of compromise and corruption. It's a brave choice for the usually safe Chichester main house season.