THEATRE / False servants: Paul Taylor on Marivaux's The Game of Love and Chance at the National. Plus London Fringe round-up

ASSUMING a false identity so as to be able to do some incognito monitoring of a prospective lover seems to have been quite the rage in 17th- and 18th-century drama. In Marivaux's The Game of Love and Chance, now revived at the Cottesloe, the convention is taken to tangled and neurotic extremes. The heroine of As You Like It, say, or Marivaux's own False Servant, is already (for non-amatory reasons) disguised when she crosses swords with the love-object. In The Game of Love and Chance, by contrast, both the heroine and the hero (due to meet for the first time on a parentally arranged trial courtship) take the conscious step of swapping roles with their servants just so that they can size one another up from this privileged / unprivileged position.

In Silvia's case, the tactic looks unduly paranoid. Unlike many a comedy patriarch, her father is not, after all insisting that she marry the recommended man, and indeed goes out of his way to reassure her that she can send Dorante back and get a full refund if she's not satisfied. Worse, when in the course of the play's crazy courtship-geometry, the besotted man is driven to confessing his superior status, Silvia refuses to resolve the situation with a corresponding disclosure. Instead, she prolongs the pretence into Act 3 with the aim of forcing Dorante to propose marriage to her while still believing her a servant. You begin to wonder what more the poor chap will have to do to prove his sincerity. Blow his brains out for her before he's even got to first base?

Neil Bartlett's adaptation, which visits the National in Mike Alfreds' energetic, over-effortful co-production for Gloria and the Cambridge Theatre Company, updates the proceedings to the Cowardesque 1930s and makes the novel decision of assigning the ingenue role of Silvia to an actress, Maggie Steed, who looks old enough to be Dorante's mother. The reason for this, according to Bartlett, is that they wanted to make a show 'about just how much someone who has very good reasons to be single has to lose when they fall in love with someone in every way unsuitable'.

This pushes the character in the direction of Shakespeare's Beatrice (too old to be comfortably single; too intelligent to take a simple plunge into matrimony). Ms Steed played that role at Stratford in much the same man-in- drag manner (replete with overtones of Mrs Thatcher and of Rod Hull's Emu) that she adopts here for Silvia, again producing such a hard-edged and grotesque comic effect that you remain completely detached from the woman's emotional difficulties. Beatrice, did not, of course, go cradle-snatching; and is it not odd that no one in the tart Thirties milieu of Bartlett's translation thinks the embarrassing age-discrepancy worth the merest mention?

Instead of staying with the snobby symmetries of the original, which evades dramatising any (potentially subversive) encounters between toffs and proles of the opposite sex, Bartlett should have let his imagination romp. Supposing Silvia (a la Connie Chatterley) got off on the idea of Peter Wingfield's attractive Dorante (here renamed Durrant) as uniformed chauffeur to the extent of being erotically dismayed to find that it was only pretence. Supposing he began to fall for the waspish come-ons of her brother, played with a wonderful shrewd, queeny disdain by Stefan Bednarczyk, pouring out his (im)pertinent accompaniments at the grand piano. Something genuinely anarchic seems to be struggling to break out of the conservative strait- jacket.

Preoccupied with role-play and authentic behaviour, the drama is also glintingly conscious of its own theatricality, a feature this production plays up to the hilt and beyond. With actors making up at side tables or bustling in propria persona on, off and round the set-within-a-set, you're kept hyperconscious that what you are watching is a performance and not some slice of reality. Details irritate. Why, in a play about social status, does Peter Wingfield have an all-purpose classless accent? Do we have to see Marcello Magni reprise so many of his old Complicite slapstick routines in the violently libidinous scenes between the low-born couple? Swanning around in her mistress's gowns like a bulldog dressed up as Borzoi, Caroline Quentin brings (as always) a lovely human quality to her clowning. When she lures Magni on and then drops him so that he falls in an agonised version of the splits, you feel like cheering. Hard to recall, at such moments, why Marivaux once had a reputation for being over-refined.

'The Game of Love and Chance' is in rep at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 (071-928 2252).

(Photograph omitted)

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