First night: Ditsy delight in devilishly clever play

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First Night

The Dispute

The Other Place

Stratford-on-avon

SUPPOSE YOU have been reared in solitary confinement from birth by a pair of minders of a different colour.

Well, just about the only problem you'd be in a prime position to avoid would be peer-group pressure. Then suppose that, at the age of 18, you were unleashed into a world where it turned out there were three other guinea pigs like yourself, forming a mixed-doubles replay of Eden.

Suppose, in addition, that unbeknown to you, there was a balconied aristocratic audience watching, hoping to decide a bet about which sex would, through infidelity, be the first to cause a re-enactment of the Fall. And imagine that those watchers were themselves being watched by paying guests.

This is the set-up in Marivaux's 1740 tragicomedy. Neil Bartlett's revival - set at a costume ball in the 1930s and using his own artfully nuanced translation - is alive to the philosophical kinkiness and the physical farcicality of this monitored descent into emotional mayhem.

Without one whit distracting from the cruelty the piece dramatises, Bartlett's staging allows room for the ditsy delightfulness of the blundering innocence even as it succumbs to corruption.

Playing Egle, Hayley Carmichael, who seems to pool the talents of Judi Dench and Kathryn Hunter, blinks and gropes her way into freedom like one of the prisoners in Fidelio, and with a degree of wondering openness that makes Miranda in The Tempest look about as naive as Marlene Dietrich.

From the moment Martin Freeman's wonderfully winning Azor shuffles on in pyjamas, the proceedings beautifully balance the novices' use of 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 English accents that work so well for this production.

Meanwhile, on the physical front, Freeman and the excellent John Padden are checking each other out for breasts in pats that become manly thumps; similarly, Carmichael and a hilariously emoting Charlotte Randle are busy shoving mirrors in each other's faces.

It all ends in tears and a sobering sense of loss and danger as the jettisoned quartet advance on a newly introduced couple who cower as if from wild animals.

This is a devilishly clever staging of a diabolically potent play.

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