Hot on the heels of the tired, limp 1950s Broadway sex comedy The Seven Year Itch, the West End now adds an equally tiresome, flaccid 1911 Hungarian comedy of the sexes The Guardsman, that signally fails to rise to the occasion, either. Theatrical Viagra is obviously in dismally short supply right now: it's even impossible to get a rise out of the two completely naked blokes in Puppetry of the Penis, despite the fact that they play with themselves, in full view of the audience, for over an hour.
But as that example indicates, the theatre is a very different place to what it once was, not to mention the society it reflects, so it's not surprising that it's impossible to get worked up over the grinding machinations of a plot here in which a man seeks to test the fidelity of the wife he has recently married by coming on to her disguised as a handsome guardsman, and seeing if she reciprocates. If she does, he's been cuckolded, never mind that it is entirely by himself; if she doesn't, perhaps his disguised self isn't as attractive as he thinks he is.
That both husband and wife are actors - and their best friend, strangely, a critic - adds another layer to the play acting, and game playing, in which they're engaged. And as staged here, by an actress-turned-director, Janet Suzman - with much artifice but no artistry - it turns into an entirely inward looking conceit, seemingly terribly pleased with itself, but with no reason for being so.
Miscast and misdirected, this creaking theatrical comedy is strenuously performed with little grace and far too much effort. As the wife and actress Ilona, Greta Scacchi manages to look gorgeous, knowing and vacuous at the same time. As her jealously insecure husband Nandor, Michael Pennington piles on more ham than a New York deli sandwich. Meanwhile, Nickolas Grace's critic, Bela, is - like many of this species - a disgrace: attending the opera, he spends most of the time not watching the performance, but engaged in conversation in the anteroom to the box. I hope he wasn't reviewing the show.
Finally, Georgina Hale's maid, mother and lady-in-waiting to Ilona, seems to be in another show entirely: looking like Dame Edna's sidekick Madge Allsop and sounding like a cross between an alcoholic Felicity Kendal and Barbara Windsor, she's a distracted but distracting pleasure. For which, in an evening that fatally lacks rhythm and conviction, I give much thanks.
What could be more damning than to be jealous of oneself? Ferenc Molnar s parlour room comedy The Guardsman addresses this paradox, while mischievously dissecting his favourite themes of theatre, marriage and fidelity. Acting is the art of deception and marriage can be compared to role-playing. Molnar s play may be mocking this so-called respectable institution, but in doing so it provides a fascinating insight into just how far one will go when consumed by the green-eyed monster.
The first act opens in the Budapest apartment of husband and wife actors Ilona played by Greta Scacchi and Nandor played by Michael Pennington. They have been married for just six months and already the accusations are flying. Nandor is obviously still besotted by Ilona, whose nonchalant indifference only serves to inflame his aggravation. Concerned by his wife s roving eye and former reputation for loose living, he disguises himself as a guardsman to test her loyalty.
Common sense would dictate that a husband could not realistically seduce his own wife without her realising it. But if Molnar s use of fantasy dances dangerously close to the absurd, we should be aware that this technique is an illusion in itself. In order to be credible, Molnar recognised that Ilona would be aware of her husband s disguise, but to make this perceivable from the outset would obviously render the play nugatory. It is the play s ambiguity and deftness in not revealing too much which holds our interest.
Under Suzman s witty direction Scacchi s Ilona is haughty and flippant on the surface, passionate and instinctive underneath. Her character seeks constant stimulation and challenge, and ironically, it is the guardsman s childlike simplicity, which attracts her.
Pennington s Nandor is a mixture of over the top flamboyance and obsessive if not pathetic idolisation. He plays the part with great comedic gusto while not relinquishing his character s tragic dimensions.
The sound support cast features Nikolas Grace as critic Bela and Georgina Hale as Ilona s unconventional ‘mother . The clean, fluid lines of art nouveau are complemented by opulent accents of Klimt in a set which is reminiscent of a bourgeois apartment in early 20th century Hungary.
If The Guardsman falters, it is because the audience s suspension of disbelief and the continuous riposte between Ilona and Nandor becomes a touch irksome towards the end. There s a sense of coming full circle after a somewhat arduous journey. And whilst Nandor may earn sympathy, you can t help but feel that his ingenious little charade was rather a pointless exercise – akin to flogging a dead horse.