This is the perverted set-up in Marivaux's exquisitely knowing tragi- comedy, written in 1740, about the victims of an exorbitantly heartless experiment. Neil Bartlett's superb revival - set on the edges of a costume ball in the 1930s and using his own cannily nuanced translation - is brilliantly alive both to the philosophical kinkiness and the physical farcicality of this monitored descent into emotional mayhem. Indeed, it's the achievement of his production to show that these two aspects are amusingly indivisible.
Patrice Chereau's celebrated 1970s production made heavy weather of the experiment's affinities with modern forms of institutionalised torture. It was ostentatiously post de Sade, Freud, and Hitler. Without one whit distracting from the cruelty the piece dramatises, Bartlett's staging allows room for the ditzy delightfulness of the blundering innocence to make an impact even as it succumbs to corruption. Playing Egle, Hayley Carmichael - a young actress who, amazingly, seems to pool the talents of Judi Dench and Kathryn Hunter - blinks and gropes her way into apparent freedom like one of the prisoners at the end of Fidelio and with a degree of fearful, wondering openness that makes Miranda in The Tempest look about as unworldly as Marlene Dietrich. From the moment that Martin Freeman's wonderfully winning Azor shuffles on, resembling one of the Lost Boys from the not-so-distant territory of Peter Pan, the proceedings beautifully chart the novices' fumbling forays into verbal and body language.
"He's a friend I've made. He's called Man and he's from a world near here," declares one of the foursome in the casual Estuary accents that work so well for this production. Meanwhile, on the physical front, Freeman and the excellent John Padden are busy checking each other out for breasts in little prods that then, just to reassure themselves about their sexuality, become thumps as they dance around like boxers. Carmichael and an hilariously peevish Charlotte Randle are seen competitively shoving compact mirrors in one another's faces and insecurely aping their rivals' gestures. It reminds you, if in an irreverent context, of Auden's lines: "Eyes, in which I learn/ That I am glad to look, return/ My smile". "Return" here, though, as in return to sender.
It all ends in tears. The production transmits an awful sense of bewildering loss and danger as the quartet, jettisoned by their now-disgusted carers and by the Prince and his estranged fiancee, advance on a newly introduced young couple who cling to each other and cower as though from predatory wild animals. This is a devilishly clever staging of a diabolically potent play.
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