Theatre: Hiding behind the mask of love

HEROINES who go round disguised as men are as common in classical comedy as men who go around disguised as Barbra Streisand are in certain clubs. But few of the former breed are as single-minded as Princess Leonide, the central figure in Marivaux's 1732 play The Triumph of Love, revived in a witty and beautifully judged production by James Macdonald.

The high curved hedges and sandy floor of Jeremy Herbert's set evokes the rural retreat of the philosopher Hermovrate and his frumpy sister, Leontine, the kind of self-deceivedly high-minded couple to whom the mere mention of the word "love" is anathema. Since he was smuggled there as a child, this sequestered residence has been the secret home of Agis, the rightful heir to the throne usurped by Leonide's family. Having fallen in love with him from afar, the Princess infiltrates the set-up in male disguise. Her aim is to win his hand and restore the kingdom to him. But as the daughter of his enemies, she can scarcely expect an immediate welcome and so feels the need to approach his heart via various incognitos.

As Macdonald's production entertainingly demonstrates, the funniest aspects of the play arise from the shamelessly disingenuous way in which Leonide persuades the egg-head couple to let her stick around long enough to work on the Prince, who is played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor with a lovely sweet- natured puzzlement like some sheltered soul being slowly initiated in the ways of the world. Helen McCrory's compelling sexy Leonide should be paid overtime, for in enacting the concurrent triple seduction of the philosopher, the sister, and the true object of her love, she effectively has to juggle four different roles.

With the first two of her victims, the comedy has the hilarity and some of the discomfort we feel at the tricking of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Playing the role of the puritanical sister, the excellent Linda Bassett reacts to Leonide's violent flattery with a lovely mix of panic and coy assent, absurdly assuming the postures of the commanding beauty she is being painted as. Finally appearing bedecked in an impetuously optimistic floral wreath, Bassett lets you see in the character's ghastly menopausal girlishness a touching streak of hope and you can't help but feel that it is irresponsible of Leonide to awaken this as a mere means to a different end.

There's understated comic idiosyncrasy to most of the acting. Colin Stinton, for example, is splendid as the repressed philosopher. He bears himself with a prudish stillness, his unease conveyed through fastidious writhings of the fingers. Antonio Gil-Martinez as a superbly cod French "arlequin" and Tony Haygarth as the most piratical-looking of gardeners form another great double act.

When Leonide stalks off with her Prince, leaving brother and sister to what in Martin Crimp's robust translation she had called "the cold endless solitary confinement of your philosophy", Macdonald allows a long tragicomically stunned pause to linger, registering the ruthlessness of her experiment. For some, the triumph of love is a dubious one.


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A version of this review appeared in later editions of Friday's paper