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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Island of Slaves
by Lizzie Loveridge

. . . you haven't been given it to jump you up but to peg him down.  
-- Trivelin

 The Island of Slaves
Anita Dobson as Cleanthis and Guy Dartnell as Harlequin
(Photo: John Haynes)
Neil Bartlett, artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith is not only a very good director but his exceptional adaptations of the classics are up to date, accessible and witty. His latest production is French playwright Pierre Marivaux's role swapping comedy The Island of Slaves which premiered in 1725, more than fifty years before the class upheaval that was the French Revolution. This is the third of Marivaux's plays which Bartlett has adapted. Previously he has staged to critical acclaim The Dispute and The Game of Love and Chance.

Marivaux's plays were peculiar in their subtle use of idiosyncratic language which was referred to at the time as Marivaudage and which has often defeated translators. The majority of his plays were written for the Italian troupe, the Commedia del'Arte. A current movie adaptation of Marivaux's The Triumph of Love with Mira Sorvino, Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw is getting good notices.

The auditorium at Hammersmith has been converted into a studio layout, assorted odd chairs for the audience are arranged around a floor covered with silver sand and extreme thunder and lightning presage the shipwreck. Thrown up on the beach are the snooty, English upper class Iphicrates (Gregor Truter) and his clowning manservant, the amiable Harlequin (Guy Dartnell). They are soon joined by mascara blotched Euphrosine (Amanda Harris) and her maid, Cleanthis (Anita Dobson). A mysterious member of the island community, Trivelin (Crispin Redman) explains that they have landed on an island founded by escaped slaves. Trivelin stipulates that master and servant, mistress and slave will have to exchange roles so that the ruling classes can be taught the inhumanity of their former behaviour. A love design for master to shack up with maid and clown with mistress misfires. The ex-servants turn out to be kinder than their former employers but underneath the ribaldry are strong undercurrents of cruelty, malice and revenge.

I loved Anita Dobson's pale faced, downtrodden maid whose mimicry of her employer's worst traits was both amusing and frightening because of the depth of her resentment. She is like a python waiting to pounce on her victim. She switches from upper class refinement back to the feisty maid with the language of the gutter in scenes which delighted the audience. Guy Dartnell's Harlequin is charming and hapless but as the cheeky chappy humiliates his former master, I had flashing through my head one of London's burgeoning S and M clubs where, so they tell me, people pay to be abused! Dartnell's terrific acting is all physicality as he lollops onstage, personifying a puppy. Iphicrates manages to survive the shipwreck with his white silk opera scarf still in place and Gregor Truter maintains the portrait of the stupid and selfish aristocrat with his permanent sneer. Amanda Harris's character has scary makeup from running heavy mascara lest we stop to sympathise with her predicament. Ultimately it is the two women who are least able to compromise, Cleanthis to forgive and Euphrosine to admit her past mistakes.

The message may be a simple one of "Do as you would be done by" or as Trivelin puts it in his last speech about forgiveness, "You were their masters and you made a terrible job of it; they became yours, and they forgave you; try and think about that. The differences between people are the test of being human." Bartlett's rapid fire banter has real social satire lurking near the surface. The effect is to give a satisfying comedy at different levels but with a happy ending. The insertion of a line to Harlequin where he says" I can't remember my next line." and the ensuing awkward pause is a meta-theatrical example of Bartlett playing with his audience. Neil Bartlett's sureness of direction in the round is the icing on this delicious cake from an original recipé by Marivaux.

On another tack, Curtain Up's interview with James Magruder the translator and book author for the musical version of Marivaux's Triumph of Love in NYCTriumph of Love

The Island of Slaves
Written by Pierre Marivaux
Adapted, directed and designed by Neil Bartlett

Starring: Anita Dobson, Guy Dartnell
With: Gregor Truter, Crispin Redman, Amanda Harris
Lighting Design: Bruno Poet
Running time: One hours twenty minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 8741 2311
Booking to 8th June 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th April 2002 performance at the Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 (Tube Station: Hammersmith)
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