I can’t stop thinking about Joe Hill-Gibbins’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Hermia and Lysander staggering around bemused, unhappy, haunted, as the play’s denouement unfurls around them. It’s not a happy ending. They’re abused, robbed of their agency, victims of authority. How have I never seen this before? If, by some miracle, I could delete Shakespeare – or, indeed, all theatre – from my brain, sit in a fringe venue and see the Dream approached straight on as a lost classic, its nasty underbelly would be ferociously obvious. A slightly snarky review might follow.
I’ve never seen or read any Marivaux so, barring program notes, The Lottery of Love is uncharted territory for me. He’s no Shakespeare (not that anyone is pretending that the eighteenth-century Frenchman operated on the Bard’s level), rather a peddler of whizzingly witty wordplay, high artifice and outrageously overblown characters. This previously unformed translation was written in 1984 by the late, great John Fowles, and it transposes the action to rom-com-friendly Regency England.
When The Lottery of Love’s witty-but-snooty society heroine Sylvia – resplendent in her duck-egg blue, Empire-line dress – decides to spy on her intended disguised as a chambermaid (to be sure of his sound character) – would you believe it! – her future fella has had the exact same idea, and sent his (badly) disguised manservant along as him. Such contrivance doesn’t matter a jot – the fantastically symmetrical plotting is super-satisfying: there to be laughed at, along with our protagonists’ pretensions.
What follows is essentially a rom-com, then – one written in 1730 and translated by a middle-aged man in 1984 – packed with all the delights and dubiousness that brings. Hilarious hi-jinx and snappy asides (with only a few misfiring modernisms from the pen of the late Mr Fowles) are zoomed through at breakneck speed and, before you know it, 90 minutes have gone by and you’re on the Tube home.
Let’s be clear. I thoroughly enjoyed The Lottery of Love. The production delights in what the play can do – swashbuckling chaps and fluttering fans – while resiliently ignoring its problems. The plot is pure artifice that sends its characters into a superficial liminal zone where their sense of identity is briefly challenged and they flail around a bit, then fires them out the other side with their worldview reaffirmed, with everyone slightly wiser and fractionally more tolerant.
Paul Millar’s direction does a fine job of confronting things head on, piling artifice on artifice: it’s all very mannered and the endless knowing asides work well on our Austen-esque heroes and heroines, with daft, panto-esque, all-consuming passions accompanied by sarcastic, twinkling sounds. This is, after all, a play about people performing a role. There’s some hilarious/cringe-worthy (delete as appropriate based on your personality type) audience engagement calling the whole thing out, and an outrageously over-the-top performance from Keir Charles as the real manservant, Brass, who seems to have channelled Red Dwarf’s Cat for inspiration. Pip Donaghy plays the patriarchal Mr Morgan with the kind of doddering fondness you suspect hides a properly cruel streak if Marivaux had any interest in it showing it to us.
The real star, though, is Dorothea Myer-Bennett. As Sylvia, she gives as a good Regency heroine as I’ve ever seen and, as her catty character disassembles courtesy of an unassailable passion for a footman, she ploughs hidden depths in the dialogue for some empathy-inducing emotion. She really chews on a passage bemoaning the double-bind of being a woman and loving outside your station and, briefly, we can ignore that it’s actually just another test of her man’s character. For, indeed, this well-spoken fella is not a servant but her richo future hubby.
And we’re back to the Joe Hill-Gibbins problem. Unfurl the loose knot of Marivaux’s plot and the worldview is thus restored: class is more than money: it’s innate and will always be recognised regardless of circumstance (and vice versa). “Vain and self-regarding” women need to be put through “hoops of self-learning” (Fowles’ own words) to stop them getting funny ideas about themselves.
Switch off and enjoy the romp, and The Lottery of Love is a delight. But, reflect on it a little, and you’re still with Hermia, flailing around for a better ending.
The Lottery of Love is on at the Orange Tree Theatre until 13th May 2017. For more details, click here.