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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

John Fowles’ translation of Marivaux’ Le Jeu de l’amour et du hazard (here The Lottery of Love) from 1730 debuts at Richmond’s Orange Tree directed by Paul Miller. Following Fowles it’s updated to Austen’s Regency around 1810. Simon Daw’s spun top of a set has Mark Doubleday’s opalescently-lit circular stage floor echo the circular cerulean ceiling and cycloramic blue-remembered cloud panels on walls. Max Pappenheim’s music riffles a harp’s ping at lovers’ meetings.


Quite why it’s taken over thirty years to debut John Fowles’ translation of Marivaux’ Le Jeu de l’amour et du hazard (here The Lottery of Love) from 1730 is a mystery. Fowles translated for the National Theatre and this was tried in an NT studio reading in 1984, but never taken up.


It’s a sparkling nudge of an update to Austen’s Regency around 1810, specifically Emma, with whose eponymous heroine Fowles rightly feels Marivaux’ heroine Sylvia has much in common: priggishly clever but warm-hearted self-delusion. In Paul Miller’s mix of blissful alertness and sexually-charged obliviousness there’s more than charm; some profound choices easy to ignore invite a critique: not just of Marivaux’ century, or Regency, but our assumptions of them. Simon Daw’s spun top of a set has Mark Doubleday’s opalescently-lit circular stage floor echo the circular cerulean ceiling and cycloramic blue-remembered cloud panels on walls. Max Pappenheim’s music riffles a harp’s ping at lovers’ first meeting. Their collaboration evokes a conservatory distilling the enlightenment and summery feel of Pip Donaghy’s benign Mr Morgan, father of Sylvia.


Not that Sylvia’s in a mood to acknowledge Morgan’s suggestion she meet the son of an old friend returning from the colonies. Dorothea Myer-Bennett is simply outstanding in her unravelment from uffishness – when confronting her more sexually-inclined maid Louisa, Claire Lams’ sparky soubrette distilling venal common sense and healthy lust – to helpless desire herself. Myer-Bennett’s not simply transfixed or panting or even in her complete overthrow still managing to master events. It’s the passion she elicits way beyond mere comedy or desire; nearer a paraphrase of ‘how deep I am in love’ invoking Rosalind, Viola or Beatrice. Marivaux celebrates sexual infatuation: Myer-Bennett ambushes it with a light-filled trippy intensity ensuring that if we laugh, we’ll cry too.


Mr Morgan, as in many Marivaux comedies, is the grand master of chances in a choice-less world, forcing nothing. He readily assents to Sylvia’s swapping places with Louisa to test this summer’s breath of a suitor, Richard. What she doesn’t know is Morgan’s received a letter from his friend disclosing Richard’s made exactly the same swap with his Man, John Brass. Brother Martin (Tam Williams) is in on this too, his masquerading as Louisa’s master-servant suitor – with mistress ‘Louisa’s’ only option – can’t hide the quietly desolate prankster, here a naval officer out of his depth on land and with women. ‘Something jolly afoot?’ he asks of the charade. He seeps loneliness and boredom. Cue a fantastical confusion as cultural and class assumptions battle with the sudden ping of Pappenheim when Sylvia meets servant ‘John Brass’. ‘I certainly don’t feel sorry for the kitchen maid who wins him one day’ she deludes herself.


Ashley Zhangazha’s John-Brassed Richard ripples with a refinement which together with physical attraction wins Sylvia in a ping, much to her confused notions of class if not culture. Brass’s formal addresses respectful to the maidservant he’s equally smitten by, disarm in their eloquence and swiftly ardent declarations – despite Martin’s egging them to address each other by first names and ‘my spanking wench’, chiding ‘Brass’ ‘I forbid you to be so clever’. Richard/Brass doesn’t entirely help by: ’I’ve never had much to do with chambermaids’ and we realize it’s not only Sylvia who must overcome prejudice in the face of true – if very convenient – desire. Zhangazha only lacks that edginess – though decidedly not warmth – to spark an alchemical convulsion in Myer-Bennett.


Marivaux prizes language as true class. Like the later The Dispute (1744) where a boy and girl are raised separately on an island away from any member of the opposite sex, Marivaux probes the essence of sexual attraction away from all preconceived trappings. Zhangazha’s baffled nobility smothers his confusion more briefly than even Myer-Bennett ‘s Sylvia.


The contrast with the real John Brass masquerading as Richard is almost guyed. Keir Charles’ Regency-tilted fop couched in pink pantaloons and thrusting brown wig fauxes us to frothing with his ‘me saucy lass’ and all those soubriquets Martin recommends to Richard’s Brass, confirms this Brassy Richard as servant class. It’s jarring to us that underlying all Marivaux’ stripping away of assumptions he still has to assume servants’ natural earthiness and their betters’ elegance – his times and Italianate master/servant comedy demanded it.


However Fowles’ shrewdness lies partly too in Regency Mockney, where Brass’s ‘aint’s’ sashayed though society banter. Charles’ caricature exaggerates this further though, with gestures and voice aspirating past every class-copping consonant. He makes less of his disguise than Lams does of her ‘Sylvia’ – soubrettes being perennially fine mimics.


Throughout a ninety-minute whirligig, Fowles’ register finds idiomatic English nuances for Marivaux. He’s sometimes elegantly parodic even to Martin’s naval-gazing terms.


This production guys another assumption. The Chévalier de Saint-Georges was France’s most famous fencer, violinist and concerto composer, The French Mozart and Mozart’s friend, influencing him. He was taken more than once for a footman, because he was black. The same Regency period here brought Britain’s most renowned nineteenth-century violinist George Bridgetower who rowed with his friend Beethoven, a much-decorated naval officer, and several rich landowning heirs who ‘married well’, all men of colour. There’s much behind casting Zhangazha. The ease with which despite his refinement Sylvia is still blinded into thinking him a footman certainly. But our own assumptions about Regency bucks are bucked too.


The inching of the true couples towards each other should be seen. One delight is in the discovering Louisa rhyming Brass with snake in the grass and Brass’s ‘I knew a rhyme would get me in the end.’ after rhyming himself with ‘arse’. And here’s another Marivaux trick: Sylvia, learning the truth still tests Richard to near-destruction provoking a crisis. The denouement however happily it concludes signals self-discovering, naked passion prepared to offer anything. That’s the essence of a playwright too-little seen who’s provoked the most blissful comedic production this spring affords. Outstanding in nearly every way, it’s another gem from Richmond’s Orange Tree, whose season of unbroken hits confirms its own cut of small faceted miracles.