The week in theatre: That Is Not Who I Am; The False Servant

Royal Court, London; Orange Tree, Richmond
A revelatory drama about identity theft is let down by its thriller plot, while translator Martin Crimp adds wit to an outsized Marivaux comedy

The Royal Court’s latest production has already furrowed brows. It became known that the dramatist was telling the truth in the play’s title. That Is Not Who I Am is not by Dave Davidson, who has “worked in the security industry”; it is by an established playwright. Some thought it misguided for a new writing theatre to be flagging this up as coming from a fresh voice; some thought the kerfuffle a distraction from the work. Actually, the wheeze is double-edged: it steers an audience into the play’s subject, but also narrows it. That Is Not Who I Am is more ample than the identity-theft promotion suggests.

There is brilliance here (as you’d expect from a writer whose name is easily discoverable but which I shan’t disclose), though it becomes partly occluded. At its best, Lucy Morrison’s production spins between many modes of visionariness and fabrication. Here are lies by government and by lovers, crackpot theories (get rid of HIV by doing downward dog) and prescient fears. Mental disturbance merges with proportionate anxiety: “Just cos it’s in your imagination doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

At first, this is presented as a true-life murder mystery. A character playing the dramatist introduces the action (the real writer eventually appears on stage). Naomi Dawson’s ingenious set revolves a skeletal apartment in front of a rehearsal space where technicians move about their tasks.

The documentary claim is quickly punctured yet the play contains a marvellous record of lockdown life. It is already easy to forget how essential it seemed to wash tinfoil and how not everyone was comfortable with the rush to celebrate (but not pay) the NHS; a nurse winces as she hears the doorstep clapping for carers.

As a doomed couple, Jake Davies and Siena Kelly are exceptionally natural and nuanced, shrugging in and out of affection, daily concern, apocalyptic alarm. Their romance – with the insights and mistiness of falling in love – adds a fine layer of comic ambiguity. A master of tall stories, Davies’s character contributes a cherishable account of being admitted to Eton as one of the “common friends” of Princes William and Harry, helping them to know “normal” by tuning to Capital FM and hanging out in a shopping centre with mini-doughnuts. The teasing investigation of current life is true revelation; the more conventional, explicit horror about surveillance is less illuminating. Cut by three-quarters of an hour and discover a masterpiece.

Just before going into The False Servant (sitting on the pavement outside the theatre), I had a zoom call with Struan Leslie that went on to inform my view of Paul Miller’s production. Leslie, head of movement at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, pointed out that, in discussing the dextrous finger dances in a review of The Father and the Assassin at the National Theatre last month, I had neglected to mention the movement director, Lucy Cullingford, writing as if these gestures may have happened without intent.

Lizzy Watts and Will Brown in The False Servant.
Lizzy Watts and Will Brown in The False Servant. Photograph: The Other Richard

Miller opened the 18th-century Marivaux drama with a silent dance by the six cast members, winding in and out of each other’s paths. Clearly this evoked the intrigues and insinuations of the plot, which hinges on a rich woman disguised as a male servant, but Leslie’s account of the intertwining of rhythms in verse and bodies allowed me to see it also as a response to the beat of Marivaux’s dialogue.

Actually, on the tiny Orange Tree stage – elegantly overhung by Simon Daw’s wrought-iron art nouveau canopy and dressed in 20s style – much of the movement (directed by Christina Fulcher) is constricted. Though the tremulousness of Phoebe Pryce’s countess can be enjoyed in closeup, Will Brown’s impressively salivating scoundrel almost bursts off the boards; as the girl-dressed-as boy chevalier, Lizzy Watts is overemphatic, matching a gesture to each word.

The shining light is the translation by Martin Crimp, recently responsible for one of the very best reinventions of the last 20 years in his script for Cyrano de Bergerac. Quick and funny, Crimp even gets in a period joke: challenged to a duel, the cross-dressed chevalier declares “his” fearlessness, explaining that “I see blood on a regular basis”. The dialogue is the ideal coming together of past and present: a confluence that Miller himself, shortly to leave the Orange Tree as artistic director, has done much to honour.

Star ratings (out of five)
That Is Not Who I Am
The False Servant ★★★


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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