The Triumph of Love

Translated and adapted by Braham Murray and Katherine Sand
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Production photo

Joining the spring collection of light comedies in Greater Manchester this month, the Royal Exchange presents us with a new adaptation of Marivaux's eighteenth century comedy The Triumph of Love, written by Katherine Sand and director Braham Murray, which is billed as "gender-bending, erotic and sexually-charged" and "the 18th Century equivalent of a Joe Orton comedy".

Leonida falls in love with Agis, but there is the slight complication that her family killed his parents and usurped his throne, and he has been brought up to despise her name by a brother and sister—Hermocrates and Leontina—who are both philosophers who have rejected love. In order to win Agis's love, Leonida and her servant Corina dress as young men, and Leonida tries to seduce Leontina in disguise as a man and Hermocrates in the guise of a lovesick young girl to try to make them both want to marry her / him, just so she can get close to Agis.

The play begins with the clumsiest kind of obvious exposition, in which the servant tells her mistress lots of information that she already knows purely for the audience's benefit as though she is recapping a sequence of events she cannot quite believe. Sarah Paul as Corina does her best with this and almost makes it work. Although there are funny moments, the quality of the writing never really improves, and many of the performers resort to 'mugging' with funny voices, faces, walks and gestures to extract laughs from a bemused audience. There is no echo at all of Orton's carefully crafted brilliance in this script, and the sexual ambiguity in the situations is more like that in Shakespeare, with shades of Twelfth Night with perhaps an added touch of Romeo and Juliet in the background.

Rae Hendrie as Leonida portrays the different faces that the character shows to different people in the play—the young romantic man to Leontina, the dizzy blonde to Hermocrates, the friendly young man and then the serious young woman in love to Agis—externally with carefully rehearsed voices and gestures, but the performance seems mechanical and empty of passion. The part appears to be crying out for the kind of performance that Ben Keaton gave at this theatre as Cyrano de Bergerac that can combine physical comedy with sympathetic emotion, but here both the comedy and the emotion are muted and cold.

Sarah Paul gives a good supportive performance in a relatively small part as Leonida's servant and confidante Corina. In the roles of Hermocrates's servants, Michael Moreland as Harlequin and John Axon as Dimas have created characters that are funny a lot of the time, but sometimes they resort to funny crouching walks and silly voices and gestures, which admittedly seemed to play well with the teenagers on the top gallery.

The one scene that genuinely works well is the final revelation when the three potential suitors to Leonida's various characters realise they have been duped; it cannot be a coincidence that this is the only significant scene containing just the three actors who get closest to creating rounded, believable (within this comic world) characters with genuine humanity: Terence Wilton as Hermocrates, Brigit Forsyth as Leontina and Charlie Anson as Agis.

Simon Higlett's set gives us a bright, eighteen-century formal garden with lots of light wooden garden benches and phallic topiary and flowers that moves suggestively at the end of each act. Steve Brown's sound design gives us plenty of cricket and other nature sounds that seem to come from all over the theatre and occasionally are used cleverly to emphasise a comic point, although some of the crickets are a little loud.

At just two hours in total including two intervals, the whole production is over in about the time it took to get through the first half of the last production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is a welcome break from some of the marathon sessions at the Exchange. However despite a few laughs, this is a poor script that isn't particularly well produced and seems an odd choice for the Royal Exchange to present in the main house.

Reviewer: David Chadderton