Mari Rowland-Hughes' Helena, with her wild raven hair, is at times unsettlingly witch-like. She is also formidably tough-minded; her first words - telling the Countess 'I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too' - mark her out from the falseness of her surroundings. But, in that she is possessed of benign energies, triumphantly curing the King's disease, it is surprising that the basic capacities of Cupid are beyond her: Bertram can only be forced to marry her by royal command and deserts her for the wars as soon as he can. Moreover, in the simplest, most affecting moment of the evening, Rowland-Hughes invests what could be read as a lament of self-abasement with the misgiving that some ungoverned part of her powers has driven Bertram away. It is a further aspect of the play's fascinating contradictions that she then sets out to recover her husband by the thoroughly pragmatic and mechanical means of a bed-trick before her final transcendent reincarnation.
Unfortunately, with the exception of these moments, the production is disappointing - a hodge-podge of settings and styles, a nervous hop from one outworn gimmick to another. So, enter two sharp newscasters with a row of video screens (very modern this) to provide a digest of our times by way of Prologue. Aristocratic decadence is then signalled by the customary Monegasque masquerade (cream suits and dark glasses), punctuated by dashes of regulation transvestism. Amanda Boxer's Countess does lapse into gravity on occasion, but each time the promise is swamped by yet another bit of giggling effervescence - such as the jester Lavatch, dressed as Butterfly, serving tea to a remix of Puccini.
And where was the director while John Baxter was developing, or rather inflating, his characterisation of the braggart Parolles? Paradoxically, he makes virtually no use of the words but presents a monochrome impersonation of Julian Clary, a camp cliche visiting every scene with blatantly felonious intent. After his humiliating exposure as cowardly hypocrite, the complex pathos of this disreputable survivor is thrown away by the indulgence of giving him a solo medley remarkable only for the omission of 'My Way'. Parolles is really Bertram writ large, exposed when his master is redeemed; but no one here seems to know where the ironies are buried.
The Duke of Florence is made into some Middle Eastern potentate (though I suppose he might be), but the designer Paul Andrews' salon setting never makes the transition to the Kuwaiti desert. By all accounts Helena Kaut-Howson, the new artistic director here, made a strong debut with The Devils recently. It is to be hoped that that proves more typical of her work here.
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