A spiralling maze has been painted across the stage floor and a metallic flowery canopy hangs overhead. In the corner, a Hepworth-esque sculpture suggests a crouched naked body or perhaps a mouth gaping open in a scream. Simon Daw’s abstract set is pitched somewhere between charming and threatening, never quite revealing itself. It’s the ideal backdrop for Marivaux’s complex 1724 comedy The False Servant, which is ostensibly about love – but is really all about money.
Martin Crimp’s gleaming translation, which premiered at the National in 2004, manages to be both carefree yet exquisitely controlled. There’s a canny ease about Crimp’s dialogue, which makes light work of Marivaux’s intricate plot, packed with deception, disguise and double-crossing characters. The wordplay never feels overplayed and only occasionally draws attention to itself with a neatly timed rhyming couplet or a very silly aside.
Will Brown revels in his role as the self-serving servant Trivelin who, as the character with the least to lose, gets to have the most fun. There are echoes of James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors as Brown scurries about the stage – a hand in almost everything but with control of absolutely nothing. Brown shamelessly makes love to the audience, charming us and cosying up to us whenever he can.
Paul Miller, who directed Marivaux’s The Lottery of Love in 2017, highlights the seductive allure of money. The male characters fall down on their knees not for lovers but for dosh: Trivelin pants like a dog for coins and in the final scene, the dastardly Lelio (a sneering Julian Moore-Cook) rolls around the floor, grasping desperately for a marriage contract he can no longer cash in.
Slightly disappointing is the fuzzy context in which the gender dynamics are played out. Chevalier (Lizzy Watts), the woman at the centre of Marivaux’s gnarled romance, is disguised as a man throughout. Watts wears a sharp grey suit, which is not 18th century but doesn’t feel contemporary either; there’s a modern-ish aesthetic to all the costumes. While it’s fun to watch Watts puffed up with the power as she struts about, hands thrust in her pockets, it feels like a missed opportunity to have a truly modern take on gender identity and to put Marivaux’s fascinating collision of the sexes into a post-#MeToo era.
At the Orange Tree theatre, London, until 23 July.