Theatre: Legends of the Fall

Kinky sexual experiments were being shown on stage long before Shopping and Fucking. Marivaux played dangerous gender games in his 1744 play La Dispute. It's a natural for director Neil Bartlett.
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Did Adam have a navel? Just for decoration, of course, and for solidarity with his offspring. Or was it one of the meagre consolations of post-Edenic life that at least he didn't have any problems with smelly, wedged-in fluff? How, though, could you be the human race's Ur-navelgazer without a navel to gaze into? Tricky.

We have a powerful urge to try to imagine a primal, prelapsarian state, but as the above parody shows, the fun and difficulties of this activity arise from the fact that we only have postlapsarian methods and metaphors for engaging in it. Even imagination is a "fallen" phenomenon. In Paradise Illustrated, his acutely witty descantings on themes from Paradise Lost, D J Enright pinned it down perfectly with this vignette: "`It's unimaginable!' sighed Adam./ `You're not obliged to imagine it,'/ snapped the Landlord. `Yet.'"

People have gone to extraordinary lengths in the forlorn hope of artificially reproducing "original" conditions. There's the instance of the Pharaoh, cited by Herodotus, who caused some children to be reared in total silence in the barmy belief that when they eventually spoke, it would be in the primal language of humanity. And tragically, in our century, there's the case of Genie, the Los Angeles teenage girl who spent her entire life locked up. Her still-preverbal plight had linguisticians salivating: through her, they thought, Chomsky's theories about language and the mind could be proved or disproved. Not so, and the poor girl became a shuttlecock in a contest between rival academics.

No non-fictional experiment has, however, displayed quite the kinkiness and exquisite cruelty of that dramatised by Pierre Marivaux in his 1744 play The Dispute. This compelling rarity is about to be revived by Neil Bartlett, artistic director of the Lyric, Hammersmith, using his own translation and in a welcome co-production between the Lyric and the RSC. The set- up in this frightening comedy is as follows: 18 years before the action commences, a recherche dispute had arisen at the Prince's court over which of the sexes in the early days of mankind committed the first infidelity. To "settle" the matter, the Prince promptly ordered four babies to be reared in solitary confinement. Compared with them, marooned Miranda in Shakespeare's cognate Tempest had a crammed social diary. And the young heir to the throne who is continually drugged and swept backwards and forwards from ragged isolation to glittering court in the political unrest of Calderon's masterpiece Life Is A Dream enjoyed, by comparison, a life crowded with incident and friendship.

The drama of what happens when Marivaux's young people are eventually released into each other's company is enclosed within a singularly nasty frame. Watching the proceedings unnoticed are the prince's son and Hermiane, the woman he wishes to seduce. The outcome of the inset drama will evidently affect their relationship for good or ill. What exactly, though, are they observing? A re-enactment of Eden and the Fall, or - notwithstanding the calendar age of these couples - a kind of child pornography?

Neil Bartlett teems with fascinating ideas about the piece, which he likens, in its Rococo exquisiteness, to a Meissen figurine - its style in telling tension with the clinical brutality it confronts and analyses. It felt a bit incongruous to be talking to Bartlett, an urban gay man par excellence, in his bijou cottage digs in Stratford-upon-Avon, rather as though one had suddenly spotted Genet in a National Trust gift shop. He appears, however, to be relishing his temporary transposition and certainly co-productions such as this are just the kind of blood transfusion the RSC needs.

A Slovakian company brought an extraordinarily sexy version of The Dispute to the 1991 Edinburgh Festival; but the revival now used as a touchstone is Patrice Chereau's 1970s production which grimly shifted proceedings to a post-Sadeian, post-Freudian environment where the Nazi experiments in the death camps never seemed far away and where one of the young guinea pigs was reduced , to suicide. Bartlett's staging sounds much subtler. Setting the play at an aristocratic country house weekend in the 1930s will enable him to get the best of both worlds.

In his view, what befalls the 18-year-old in the short course of the play is "an evolution that is like time-lapse photography. They start off being five, but actually behave as if they are three, and finish older than us". For Bartlett, the timescale of the play eerily incorporates an acceleration into the future. "It seems to start in the Rococo 18th century and whether it wants to or not, it winds up in a Sadeian wasteland". He is struck by how acutely the play anticipates later "findings". The comically naive routines with a looking glass "are almost a canonical description of Freud's mirror-phase and its perils". Having a foot, so to speak, in two temporal camps, the production will strive to heighten the play's prophetic cultural amphibiousness.

I suggested to Bartlett that theatre is a medium particularly suited to dramatising these doomed attempts to recreate origins, the bare stage a symbol of the tabula rasa, the slate wiped clean, a metaphor right under the actors' feet. He qualifies this slightly by saying that in The Dispute, there's a strange doubleness in the setting. The stage has to represent both the abstract base I've described and the very specific location of a contrived wilderness in the grounds of a country estate. Hence, the corner of a building from the Charlottenberg Gardens in Berlin featuring in the set.

Those of us who feel that a more interesting question than "which sex committed the first infidelity?" would be "which sex first thought of such a mean, futile question?", will be relieved to learn that that dispute is only the ostensible contention in Marivaux's play. What is most profoundly at issue, declares Bartlett, "are the two competing mythologies of childhood. Does every childhood inevitably re-enact the Fall? Or is evil the failure of parents?

"In her book about Mary Bell, Gita Sereny slips in a shocking statement. She talks about `the intrinsic goodness of the human being as born'. But what about Mary Bell's mother? She must also have been naturally good. So where does the chain end? That's the book's great silence."

The perverted ingenuity of the experimental set-up in The Dispute extends to the skin colour of the couple assigned to rear the children. Carise and Mesrou are black, the Prince reports, "so that their charges might be the more astonished when they see other people" - to maximise, in other words, their sense of disorientation on realising that their whiteness is not unique to them. At this point, the antennae of Bartlett, the creative historian of theatrical culture, twitch. "What wouldn't we give to know," he muses, "if Carise and Mesrou were played by black actors at the original performance? And wouldn't it be fabulous to commission a play about the life of the two black performers in The Dispute after the curtain comes down?"

Frames-within-frames: a contrast between the power politics in the play and in the theatrical company. Somehow I fancy we won't have to wait many years for this intriguing hypothetical project. Most likely venue? The Lyric, Hammersmith. Most likely author? One Neil Bartlett.

`The Dispute' previews at The Other Place, Stratford from 24 Feb, (01789- 295623) tours to Poole and Brighton; Lyric Hammersmith from 15 Apr (0181- 741 2311)