Theatre Review: French without tears

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Les Fausses Confidences

Royal National Theatre, London

The Comedie-Francaise? "A lot of busts and statues - off-stage and on," according to my old French teacher. But then he was not a man who allowed himself to be biased by facts. For nearly 20 years, London audiences haven't had the chance to check out the difference, if any, between this institution's reputation for heavy hide-bound tradition and the reality. Now we do, with this powerful Jean-Pierre Miquel staging of , Marivaux's astringent 1737 comedy of love and deceit and of social versus emotional aspirations, which launches this autumn's ambitious French Theatre Season.

The production opens and ends with the cool-cat slink of jazz piano chords. That note of modernity is well judged. Marivaux may have been influenced by commedia dell'arte and have written plays full of Silvias and Arlequins, but his ever increasing appeal these days lies in the slightly disturbing edge to the way his characters experiment with other people's emotions and their own. By the end, you are often not quite sure whether you've witnessed witty machinations or "the elegant anatomy of a crime", as Anouilh puts it in his Marivaux-incorporating play, The Rehearsal. On a hideous set, Miquel's cast stylishly create the requisite mixed mood. At the scheming centre of the drama is Dubois. When his dishy, well-bred but hard-up former master Dorante (Laurent d'Olce) is taken on as a steward by Dubois's new boss, a wealthy widow, the servant masterminds a devious plot to make her fall in love with the besotted yet ineligible beau. This involves plying her with a tormenting mixture of truth (that Dorante is desperately enamoured) and constraining conjecture (that of course, given their relative positions, she would never dream...).

Cecile Brune turns in a lovely performance. All banked-down palpatations and put-on fronts at first, her Araminte matures beautifully into a woman who chooses to follow her feelings. The moment when she unpins her hair is, in this tight little world, as devastating to watch as if she'd taken off her bra. The opposition comes in the shape of Andrzej Seweryn as the smugly posing Conte and Catherine Samie, who, as her imperious, fan-pointing sow of a mother, would leave Ladies Bracknell and Macbeth a pile of smouldering rubble. One is terrified to think what this actress would be like in Racine - perhaps one would be too busy hiding under the seats to notice.

It's Gerard Giroudon's excellent Dubois who leaves you guessing, though. What's in it for him? What kind of kick does he get out of all this duplicitous meddling? A balding middle-aged figure who keeps his hands behind his back and his cards close to his chest, Giroudon conveys, by turns, disgruntlement, passion, faint hints of the homoerotic, and opacity. At the end of the first act, his decision to "launch the full offensive" seems to trigger a thunderstorm outside. Iago could not wish for more. But, at the end of the play, he's shrugging off his success with a pensive, bored "ouf". Creepy.

To Sat. RNT (0171-928 2252)

Paul Taylor