Monday, June 24

The False Servant – Orange Tree Theatre

Gender fluid yet stereotypical, Martin Crimp’s translation of Pierre Marivaux’s French play The False Servant is probably the outcome of Commedia del’arte being shredded off its extreme archetypes and placed in a slightly modern context. Often reminiscent of Shakespeare and Moliere’s comedy, filled with subplots, disguise and conceit, wit and irony, courtship and lust, Orange Tree Theatre production presented The False Servant directed by their artistic director Paul Miller.

The play opens announcing its period origins with the ensemble walking and bowing to festive and joyful music. We first meet Trivelin (Will Brown), the voluble and opportunistic aristocrat reduced to poverty by circumstance and Frontin (Uzair Bhatti) who introduces Trivelin to his mistress/ master successfully providing the former with a job. To investigate the true character of her potential match Lelio (Julian Moore-Cook), a French lady disguises herself as the Chevalier (Lizzi Watts) and spies on him at the residence of the Countess (Pheobe Pryce) who Lelio is currently engaged to. The plot is further convoluted by the schemes of their servants Trivelin and Arlequin (Silas Wyatt-Barke) who though less clever than the former are driven by the same things i.e. money, sex and alcohol. As quoted by Michael Billington in Guardian, in Marivaux’s sensibility as in Crimp’s world, “irony and fascination with money and sex” run deep and seem to be of central importance in varying capacities for both men and women in the play. On either ends of the same spectrum, while Lelio is guided by a materialistic life, the Countess on the other end is driven by emotion being easily manipulated. Gender fluid and level-headed Chevalier potentially portrays the balance of the yin and yang successfully holding the mirror up to both Lelio and the Countess and probably in extension to the audience to where they might belong.

While the 300-year-old narrative is quite relevant to the present times and the translation quite sublime, the performances lacked a certain grounding at times, showcasing superficial emotional investment in their characters. Though Brown’s comic timing and play with the audience were wholesome and delightful, his sexual innuendos and chemistry with Watts sometimes fell flat. His playful banter with an exasperated Lelio was the highlight for me. Lelio’s character is played exaggeratedly, his cruelty stripping him of any scope of portraying human vulnerability. Pryce’s emotional extravagance is visible in her delivery having the same effect as Lelio’s character. Perhaps, this is a result of stock character types of the time. While Watt’s performance was engaging and lively, whether the lack of ‘male’ physicality and gestures was a conscious choice to make a statement on gender performativity or simply a lack of attempt to portray a more convincing ‘male’ representation is arguable. I accepted her characterisation and enjoyed what she offered.

Simon Daw’s maze-like floor seemed jarring for an intimate space, but the canopy of laser cut foliage with chandeliers worked well with the lights. The focus being the narrative and writing, there are minimum light and sound changes. Mark Doubleday’s simple yellow washes complemented the set and Sarah Frances’ evening attire for the ensemble.

For those who enjoy the banter and the battle of the sexes, the wit and irony, the cynicism and hypocrisy, it is definitely a recommended one.

Playing until 23rd July,

Reviewer: Khushboo Shah

Reviewed: 13th June 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★