"False servants: Marivaux's The Game of Love and Chance"
by Paul Tayor
13 January 1993
Assuming a false identity so as to be able to do some incognito
monitoring of a prospective lover seems to have been quite the rage
in 17th- and 18th-century drama. In Marivaux's The Game of Love
and Chance, now revived at the Cottesloe, the convention is
taken to tangled and neurotic extremes.
The heroine of As You Like It, say, or Marivaux's own False
Servant, is already (for non-amatory reasons) disguised when
she crosses swords with the love-object. In The Game of Love
and Chance, by contrast, both the heroine and the hero (due
to meet for the first time on a parentally arranged trial courtship)
take the conscious step of swapping roles with their servants just
so that they can size one another up from this privileged/unprivileged
In Silvia case the tactic looks unduly paranoid. Unlike many a
comedy patriarch her father is not after all insisting that she
marry recommended man and indeed goes out of his way to reassure
can send Dorante back get full refund if satisfied. Worse when in
course play crazy courtship-geometry besotted driven confessing
superior status refuses resolve situation with corresponding disclosure.
Instead prolongs pretence into Act 3 aim forcing propose marriage
while still believing servant. You begin wonder what more poor chap
will have do prove sincerity. Blow brains for before he even got
Neil Bartlett's adaptation, which visits the National in Mike Alfreds'
energetic, over-effortful co-production for Gloria and the Cambridge
Theatre Company, updates the proceedings to the Cowardesque 1930s
and makes the novel decision of assigning the ingenue role of Silvia
to an actress, Maggie Steed, who looks old enough to be Dorante's
mother. The reason for this, according to Bartlett, is that they
wanted to make a show "about just how much someone who has
very good reasons to be single has to lose when they fall in love
with someone in every way unsuitable."
This pushes the character in the direction of Shakespeare's Beatrice
(too old to be comfortably single; too intelligent to take a simple
plunge into matrimony). Ms Steed played that role at Stratford in
much the same man-in-drag manner (replete with overtones of Mrs
Thatcher and of Rod Hull's Emu) that she adopts here for Silvia,
again producing such a hard-edged and grotesque comic effect that
you remain completely detached from the woman's emotional difficulties.
Beatrice, did not, of course, go cradle-snatching; and is it not
odd that no one in the tart Thirties milieu of Bartlett's translation
thinks the embarrassing age-discrepancy worth the merest mention?
Durrant and Silvia's brother Maurice (Stefan Bednarczyk)
Instead of staying with the snobby symmetries of the original,
which evades dramatising any (potentially subversive) encounters
between toffs and proles of the opposite sex, Bartlett should have
let his imagination romp. Supposing Silvia (a la Connie Chatterley)
got off on the idea of Peter Wingfield's attractive Dorante
(here renamed Durrant) as uniformed chauffeur to the extent of being
erotically dismayed to find that it was only pretence. Supposing
he began to fall for the waspish come-ons of her brother, played
with a wonderful shrewd, queeny disdain by Stefan Bednarczyk, pouring
out his (im)pertinent accompaniments at the grand piano. Something
genuinely anarchic seems to be struggling to break out of the conservative
Durrant and Arlecchino, his chauffeur (Marcello
Magni), wearing a wee too much stage makeup!
Preoccupied with role-play and authentic behaviour, the drama is
also glintingly conscious of its own theatricality, a feature this
production plays up to the hilt and beyond. With actors making up
at side tables or bustling in propria persona on, off and round
the set-within-a-set, you're kept hyperconscious that what you are
watching is a performance and not some slice of reality. Details
irritate. Why, in a play about social status, does Peter Wingfield
have an all-purpose classless accent? Do we have to see Marcello
Magni reprise so many of his old Complicite slapstick routines in
the violently libidinous scenes between the low-born couple? Swanning
around in her mistress's gowns like a bulldog dressed up as Borzoi,
Caroline Quentin brings (as always) a lovely human quality to her
clowning. When she lures Magni on and then drops him so that he
falls in an agonised version of the splits, you feel like cheering.
Hard to recall, at such moments, why Marivaux once had a reputation
for being over-refined.