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Watermill - The Triumph of Love

9th April to 17th May 2003

This was from The Times.

Four stars
Beautifully acted, directed and translated but oh, what a chilly play. The author is Marivaux, theatrical darling of the glittering, hollow France of Louis XV, and that about sums up the style and content of the playwright too. Jonathan Munby urges his excellent cast through the author’s hoops with an ingenious spirit. It is also often very funny in Martin Crimp’s nimble translation, yet at other times so blithely cruel.

The plot. Well, Leonide, a reigning princess, wishes to restore the throne to the rightful heir, Agis, with whom she has fallen instantly in love and who lives in seclusion with a philosopher and his unmarried sister. A pert valet and a comical gardener attend them.

Leonide disguises herself and her servant as men and, once arrived at the philosopher’s estate, manages instantly to extract vows of eternal friendship from Agis (Gary Shelford), declares undying love for the philosopher (who knows her to be a woman) and more undying love for the sister (who assumes he is a man). Sorting all this out occupies the rest of the play.

The burden of exposition rests on Leonide and is surely a parody of such preliminaries, so packed is it with the crucial misbehaviour of dead princes. Anna Hewson, tall and commanding, possesses the presence to carry off this wordy feat but, more crucially, displays a merry gravity that is immediately winning. She is inspired by Love and Justice, she declares, and at this point we can believe she might indeed be feeling both.

It is only later, when Marivaux decides that her pretences at love are interminably wordy and passionate that I longed for one of her victims to gaze into her sparkling eyes and tell her it’s rubbish. Paul Webster’s excellent old Hermocrate, perhaps, puffing the dust off his feelings, or Dinah Stabb as his delicately astounded sister. Or even one of the servants, Alan McMahon’s dangerously smiling valet, or Clive Kneller’s eye-rolling gardener, to whom Crimp gives absurd bunches of horticultural metaphors.

Munby animates this emotional geometry with great skill, decorating it with handsome touches on Mike Britton’s elegant circle of a stage, patterned like a compass, bordered with a malachite hedge. There are also two exquisite dances and I might have enjoyed every minute if only I could have gone on believing that the heroine and Marivaux meant a word they said.


This was from the Newbury Weekly News.

Oh what tangled webs

The Triumph of Love, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, May 17

It's funny how things pan out. On Friday, I listened to conductor Sir Roger Norrington, who devoted a large part of his career to exploring authenticity in early and late baroque music and who is involved with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was an age of change in European thinking which was still in my mind at the Watermill the following day for The Triumph of Love, Martin Crimp's new translation of Marivaux's Le Triomphe de l'Amour, which is a play steeped in the ideals of the period.

Indeed, the Parisian lawyer-turned playwright, born in 1688, would have drawn his material from debates with the leading Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau.

This production was simple in its complexity, opening on the hedge-flanked Watermill lawn with a turf bridge signifying the entrance to philosopher Hermocrate's private garden. Enter, disguised as young men in fine white silks, Leonide, Princess of Sparta and her servant.

Their lengthy dialogue outlined the plot to breach the household and right an injustice to the reclusive prince, Agis.

It was to be engineered through deceiving the entire household with friendship and the promise of love. Oh what tangled webs we weave! Havoc is wreaked and all goes pear-shaped, but true love, of course, triumphs.

The scene set, we entered the auditorium which became the philosopher's garden, an intimate place, enclosed by mottled green walls representing those same tall hedges.

It was a place of trysts, where we were party to snatched meetings, unfinished conversations and declarations of love as Leonide manoeuvred her way towards the final enlightenment.

Marivaux's skill as an advocate wove through each of Leonide's encounters' throwing up philosophical and moral dilemmas and up above hung a myriad of light bulbs which, in time, fully illuminated, the significance of which was not lost.

It took a while to get into this production, but with fine performances by the more experienced actors underpinning those of the younger protagonists, together with some delicious comic moments, somewhere before the interval at 90 minutes I began to see the light.


This was from the Guardian.

Three stars
The 18th-century French playwright Marivaux is very much back in fashion. And so he should be, not because his pointed elegance fits well within current notions of theatrical chic, but because his cruelly comic stories of love tell us much about our own dissembling hearts.

Marivaux's plays can be delightful, but there is also something merciless and scientific about them. The Triumph of Love features a cross-dressing princess who wins and breaks hearts. Her sexual game-playing is quite as nasty as anything in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

The tiny, enclosed space of the Watermill is the perfect setting for this drama of secrets and cloistered lives. Weather permitting, the play is staged in the Watermill gardens, where the comic capers begin in a hectic first scene in which we discover that Princess Leonide has disguised herself as a man so she can win the heart of Prince Agis, whose throne her family usurped.

If she marries Agis and restores the throne to him, love and justice will prevail, but first she must outwit the philosopher Hermocrate and his sister Leontine, who have brought Agis up in seclusion and taught him that love is dangerous.

Sparklingly played by Anna Hewson, sexy and sexually ambiguous in her white jodhpurs and chaps, Leonide leads everyone a merry dance, bribing the conniving, money-grubbing servants to back her cause and making the philosopher and his sister, who have renounced affairs of the heart for the those of the mind, fall in love with her.

Jonathan Munby's production, glued together by Hewson's dazzling performance, is an enjoyable romp, and there are other fine performances too, particularly from Alan McMahon as Hermocrate's calculating valet.

But Munby neglects the darker aspects of the drama. Leonide's love triumphs, but Hermocrate and Leontine pay the price: they are awakened to feeling but condemned to a life of philosophy without love. Marivaux makes you wonder whether Leonide's means justify the ends; Munby is so keen that we have a good time, he doesn't question it.


This was from the Sunday Times.

Aimez-vous Marivaux? After a cool and intelligent production such as this one, by Jonathan Munby, you wonder. Princess Léonide (Anna Hewson) has inherited Sparta from her usurping parents. The rightful prince, Agis (Gary Shelford), is being brought up by an elderly, autocratic philosopher, Hermocrate (Paul Webster), and his elderly, stern sister, Léontine (Dinah Stabb), who plan to effect a regime change in Sparta and put their protégé on the throne. Léonide, disguised as a man, arrives with her servant, Corine (Megan Whelan), to win the confidence of the philosopher and his sister, liberate Agis and restore him to the throne. This, Léonide says, is her moral duty. She wins the servants over with lavish bribes, makes the iron virgin, Léontine, fall in love with her, and the prickly old philosopher, too, by revealing that she’s a woman. This poor, desiccated couple are made to suffer the agonies of unrequitable love simply to get them out of the way. By this time, Agis, too, is in love with Léonide, and, she claims, she with him. This is the real theatre of cruelty, especially when you realise that by making Agis love her, she could become queen of Sparta — which, you are entitled to surmise, inspired her project.

Marivaux manipulates his characters with the same cool and cruel brilliance with which Léonide manipulates everybody else. Neither has considered the plight of the lovesick oldies. The actors work with wit, elegance, polish and steely discipline: they know that in this ruthless game of love and chance, they must not take sides. Paradoxically, it’s the oldies who become the emotional centre of the play. They are the ones who feel and suffer; and Marivaux makes you wonder whether, having manipulated Agis, they deserve to be manipulated like this. Or does he? “How,” poor Léontine demands, “can a moral end justify immoral means?” True; but behind this piece of political correctness, you sense Marivaux’s relish. An impeccable entertainment: witty, stylish, sophisticated and cold as ice.