I have no complaint about the quality of the acting or the production values which, as always at Chichester, are high. The cast, after all, includes Niamh Cusack and Jamie Glover in sparkling form. What I find baffling is the choice of this particular play. I understand that there is tradition of Anouilh plays at the Festival Theatre stretching back fifty years which is worth celebrating, but surely there is better fare to be had from Anouilh’s prodigious output than this.
France in the early fifties was at a tipping point both politically and artistically. Opposition to the Government’s treatment of Algeria was growing. Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Queneau were establishing themselves in the national consciousness, and the Nouvelle Vague was just around the corner. Seemingly oblivious to this cauldron of new radicalism, Anouilh, who was mid-career, ploughed a lone furrow, resolutely refusing to chime with the prevailing mood.Avant garde he was not.
The Rehearsal (La Repetition ou L’Amour Puni), though set in 1950 is almost a boulevard comedy. It’s main characters are all aristocrats, throwbacks to the Fauberg Saint-Germain, people who would be despised by most republicans, but the type of people (and Anouih was quite sanguine about this) who regularly bought theatre tickets in Paris. No doubt these relics of the Ancien regime still existed and still do, but you have to wonder what relevance their pampered existence had to the vast majority of Frenchman in the 1950’s or, indeed, to English theatre audiences in the twenty-first Century.
This is a play-within-a-play piece. The Count and his house-guests are preparing an Eighteenth Century play entitled Double Inconstancy by Pierre de Marivaux. Strange that in the same week that I saw this conceit used to such brilliant effect in the movie Clouds of Sils Maria, it should surface again in such a different context. But here the interplay between dialogue and play script, reality and fiction, works less well because whereas in the original the differences in language between the declamatory style of the modern boulevardiers and the language of De Marivaux was subtle and hard to detect, this does not work well (if at all) in Jeremy Sams’s translation. I wonder how many people in the audience at the Minerva were well-versed enough in the works of De Marivaux to appreciate the references.
Many, however, would be familiar with the work of Choderlos de Laclos whose novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses was adapted for the movie Dangerous Liaisons (1988) with which this play has many similarities. Not the least of these is the seduction and de-flowering of Lucille (Gabrielle Dempsey) by Hero (Edward Bennett) in Act IV. This closely resembles the scene in Les Liaisons Dangereuses where Cecile is seduced by the Vicomte de Valmont. In both cases, the cynicism and cruelty is truly shocking to modern tastes and I for one left this production with a distinctly nasty taste in my mouth and wondering what, if anything, this play brings us in the way of enlightenment.