Arts: THEATRE: A bone to pick from the dust of metaphysics

La Dispute/Contention, the latest instalment in the bold French Theatre season, was directed by hotshot Stanislas Nordey. David Benedict was less than impressed.
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Recent glamorous revivals of Chekhov and Ibsen have caused many to argue that the classics are alive and well in Britain. Yet closer investigation reveals a distinct whiff of xenophobia among theatregoers who stay away in droves from foreign plays. The tiny Gate Theatre responds by going on the offensive, with a policy of presenting truly neglected foreign plays. But for most theatres, the likes of, say, Thomas Bernhard, are box-office suicide.

In terms of French theatre, you can just about get away with Moliere, but Racine or Corneille do not exactly guarantee bums on seats. For British audiences, with the exception of Neil Bartlett and Mike Alfreds's hilarious production of The Game of Love and Chance a few years ago, the 18th century playwright Marivaux is also a virtually unknown quantity. But now, like buses, two of his plays have come along at once. The ambitious French Theatre season, the largest ever French cultural event in this country, opened with due fanfare (the national anthem and `La Marseillaise', since you ask) at the National Theatre with Les Fausses Confidences by the Comedie-Francaise. Four weeks later it was La Dispute.

Advance word had it that Stanislas Nordey was France's answer to Stephen Daldry, to which one can only respond, "What was the question?" Daldry is noted for the boldness of his conceptions and his dramatic design sense. On the evidence of this production, Nordey shares his control of space, but in most other respects, I'm not sure that either of them would welcome the comparison.

At the heart of the evening, Nordey directed and appeared in Marivaux's striking comedy about a prince and his lover, Hermiane, witnessing a dramatic experiment in which two men and two women, raised in ignorance of the opposite sex (or indeed, of anyone else at all), are brought together to discover which sex is more faithful by nature.

Dressed only in old shabby raincoats on an empty stage surrounded by black drapes, the actors had a dance-like physicality almost entirely absent from classic theatre in this country, which was not only apt for the extremes of emotions, but invigorating to watch.

The downside was that it was bookended by a spot of metaphysics. Let me rephrase that: by two hours of metaphysics. Nordey began and ended with tracts contextualising fidelity in the age of Aids. The self-consciously repetitive, baldly staged opening speech on the nature of dying trembled on the border between monologue and monotony. The tortuous 40-minute closing section on love, pain and the whole damn thing toppled over entirely.

Intellectually, there was a case to be made, but theatrically? Stark address from a stage stripped to the back wall is hardly eye-opening (an urgently needed activity when many around me were nearer to eye-closing). Any dramatic impact the piece had made disappeared under the law of diminishing returns. Even for French speakers, there was more activity on the surtitle screen than on stage.