French lessons

THEATRE The School for Wives Piccadilly Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
Chrysalde, male friend to the protagonist in Moliere's School for Wives, argues for a sense of proportion where cuckoldom is concerned. True, you wouldn't want to rush around reading out long lists of your wife's lovers. On the other hand, it's folly to base your sense of personal honour on random behaviour for which you can take neither praise nor blame. In the new translation Ranjit Bolt has made for Peter Hall's enjoyable revival, Chrysalde jokily echoes Hamlet, "And then there's nothing good or bad, you know / Not even horns - but thinking makes it so".

This philosophy falls on deaf ears, for horns are the only thing the merchant, Arnolphe, can think of. In an absurd, monomaniac scheme for ensuring marital fidelity, he has kept his intended future bride mewed up from the age of four in a state of perfect ignorance. What his plan has failed to consider is that, while you can keep someone ignorant, you can't keep them stupid, as becomes apparent when his sweet ward, Agnes (Gillian Kerney), spots Daniel Betts's Horace from the balcony of her prison and the two fall in love. In a characteristic Moliere twist, Arnolphe's control-freak precautions help bring about the very thing he dreaded.

Peter Bowles does not give Arnolphe the demented dynamism that Ian McDiarmid brought to the part three years ago in the Almeida production. But the serenely misplaced smugness of the character is well brought out at the start in the pompous swagger of Bowles's pose and the pedantically self- satisfied overemphasis of his delivery. It's a role that, to an unusual degree, requires the ability to listen comically, for there are many occasions when Agnes's young wooer unwittingly takes Arnolphe into his confidence. A tight ghastly smile clamped to his face, his body a rigid study in suppressed pain and violence, Bowles is hilarious at such moments.

Often, he can only trust himself to communicate by little nods of the head, and at one point, desperate for the youth to get off so that he can unburden himself to the audience, Bowles has to endure two rapid re- entries from his rival. It's a hoary gag to have him stop and turn to the wings before his third attempt to launch into that soliloquy and you could object that such touches of theatrical self-consciousness on his part injure our sense of the character's undistractible fixation. Playing around with conventions is best left to Arnolphe's simple-minded servants, acted here by Carmen Silvera and dear old Eric Sykes. Exuding a delightfully knowing brand of benign bemusement, Sykes's retarded retainer blunders into routines (sneezing twice because the play is in rhyming couplets; treating the revolve as if it were a death-trap one might be somewhat puzzled to find in a 17th-century home, etc) that need a performer who can generate just the kind of goodwill Sykes is capable of producing.

With her doll-like prettiness and merry smile, Ms Kerney brings a charming directness to the role of Agnes, though she lacks that quality of tranquil, spiritual grace that made Emma Fielding such a powerful presence in the Almeida production. Some people may feel that Ranjit Bolt's translation relies too heavily on blokey vulgarisms, but some of these have a real dramatic effectiveness. Compare Richard Wilbur's rendering of the following couplet, "I've got off cheap this once, thanks be to God / If I slip again, let all men call me clod", with Bolt's version, "I've come out of it / Smelling, if not of roses, not of shit". Which one expresses more pungently the fact that, for Arnolphe, honour is simply a matter of avoiding public disgrace?

To 26 April. Booking: 0171-369 1734