The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 7th January, 2017
Marivaux’s 1736 comedy deals with the mercenary nature of marriage and the folly of placing money above human emotion (in this case, love). The Marquis (Andrew Buzzeo) stands to inherit 600,000 francs if he marries Hortense (Tessa Bonham Jones) but forfeit a third of this fortune to her if he doesn’t. Neither he nor Hortense is motivated to marry the other, apart from the prospect of financial gain – they each have their hearts set on other people: he, the Countess (Cicely Whitehead) and she, the Chevalier (Liam Fernandez). Add to the mix a couple of scheming servants in the form of Lepine (Dominic Weatherill) and Lisette (Scarlett Saunders) and the scene is set for a lot of comings and goings, plots and counterplots, and ridiculously volatile and transient affections. The characters speak their minds in asides that the other characters can hear, making for some funny exchanges and additional complications. They are all pretty much stock figures – most of them don’t have names, only indicators of social standing – but they are exquisitely played by this tight ensemble, it is a pleasure to see them work themselves up and then extricate themselves from their own machinations.
Tessa Bonham Jones is deliciously Machiavellian as the scheming Hortense – it falls to her to provide a good deal of exposition at the start, as Marivaux sets out his stall. Liam Fernandez’s Chevalier is handsome and passionate; Andrew Buzzeo’s Marquis hilariously and charmingly blusters, like a kind of articulate Hugh Grant, struggling to express his feelings to Cicely Whitehead’s coolly elegant Countess. Dominic Weatherill is suitably cocky as Lepine but it is Scarlett Saunders’s worldly and wily Lisette the maid who threatens to steal every scene she is in.
The timing is impeccable. Dewi Johnson’s direction is pacy, augmenting the witty translation with comic business, and keeping things moving. The mannered performance style fits the heightened language and the audience acknowledgments keep us in collusion with the plotters. Denisa Dumitrescu’s costumes are gorgeous (the play has become a period piece rather than the contemporary social satire it was originally) and Charlotte Orsler’s set is largely a huge document – the will of the title – which towers over the action, forming the backdrop and also the floor; the characters traipse over the stipulations that motivate them, until they come to their senses and realise love is more important than money.
Hugely enjoyable, this production tickles and amuses; we love to see self-centredness at work so overtly, safe in the knowledge that higher motivations will prevail.