Billing Marivaux’s comedy as an ‘European classic’ is probably over-egging it slightly. ‘Classical’, it certainly is, in the sense that it obeys the ‘unities’ laid down by Aristotle (everything happens in one room over the course of a single afternoon), but when all is said and done, The Surprise of Love isn’t so much a ‘classic’ as an elegant and well-honed drawing room comedy, with – in Mike Alfreds’ new translation at least – its roots in farce and commedia dell’ arte artfully disguised.
Recently widowed, the still young, still beautiful Marquise swears she’ll never love again and abandons herself to a life of mournful contemplation; having recently lost his mistress to a nunnery, the still young, still handsome Chevalier (who happens to live next door) swears he’ll not take another lover and prepares to abandon Paris for the bucolic charms of his provincial birthplace. Both of them don’t so much retire into melancholy as positively bask in the gloomy shadows of their respective miseries. The Marquise even hires a pedantic and buffoonish scholar, Hortensius, to read her suitably dismal passages from ‘uplifting’ philosophers. The miserable neighbours’ servants, meanwhile, fall for each other and, being blessed with considerably more common sense, set about sorting their employers’ lives out for them. Cue an afternoon’s worth of misunderstandings, accusations and yet more misunderstandings, and… well, you can probably work out the happy denouement for yourselves.
All of which is not to say that The Surprise of Love is in any way inferior to the two other productions in new artistic director Laurence Boswell’s debut rep season at the Ustinov. It may not be as riotously funny as The Phoenix of Madrid, but its statelier pace allows for more reflection on its themes of love and friendship; and if it doesn’t strain after the passions of Iphigenia, neither does it get bogged down in ponderous explication. It is, if you like, a consummate example of a well-made play – complete with a set of French windows and an absence of loose ends – and, as such, is solidly entertaining.
Much of its success is down to what is fast becoming the characteristically high quality of the acting from Boswell’s hard-working rep company. Laura Rees – who is concurrently playing the title role in Iphigenia and a not insignificant part in the machinations of Phoenix – produces another spot-on performance, swooping into the deluded Marquise’s melancholy and deftly unfolding her growing realisation that she can still love again. Milo Twomey, meanwhile, brings to the Chevalier the same kind of confident insouciance and emotional blindness that infects his equally engaging Don Alonso in The Phoenix. This, though, is a strong-in-depth ensemble, and these two get good support, especially from Frances McNamee and Peter Bramhill as the spiky, mind-speaking ‘downstairs’ pairing of Lisette and Lubin, but also from Adam Jackson-Smith as a nice-but-dim Count and Christopher Hunter as the waftily highbrow Hortensius.
If The Surprise of Love, then, doesn’t quite show the qualities of a classic, Boswell’s production completes an impressive trio of works – and anyone who feared that, perhaps, the Theatre Royal Bath’s studio would now only be doing ‘this sort of thing’ need only look at the line-up of contemporary American plays he’s programmed for the second in-house season in late spring next year.