La Dispute/Scenes of Love @ Pleasance Theatre, London

cast list
Mathias Bonnet
Yann Burlot
Juliette Navis-Bardin
Tamsin Fessey
Richard Keightley
Jatin Mehta
Richard Pepper
Julia Sandiford
Aude Sabin
Assly Zandry

directed by
ric de Dadelsen
Marivaux’s 18th Century play La Dispute is a fascinating study in love and human development, and comparisons with a certain reality TV show are almost unavoidable. This production, now at the Pleasance for a brief run, is a truly Anglo-French affair with a cast of bi-lingual actors recruited from both sides of the Channel.

I have to say that as the performance began my heart sank; it looked as though this was going to have all the hallmarks of a student show – low production values, youthful and inexperienced actors and a director with more ideas than judgement. Within a few minutes, though, my attention was grabbed and, while the evening turned out to be something of a curate’s egg, there was enough to hold the interest throughout.

The argument of the title is a debate between an Oberon/Titania-like couple on which of the sexes is the more faithful in love. To explore this theme, the Prince produces two boys and two girls who have been brought up in complete isolation from each other and puts them on show, as they come to terms with an ever-expanding Brave New World. The first pair meet, fall in love and swear fidelity but, as more enfants sauvages are introduced, society develops and rivalry and jealousy flare up.

The dovetailing of scenes and sonnets from Shakespeare into this scenario is not entirely successful. La Dispute has enough of interest in itself to not need spicing up and the playing of the French scenes is much more accomplished than that of the more-demanding English ones. The director further displays his erudition and ability to connect texts by quoting from the Old Testament (through the use of projections) and so Adam and Eve’s rise and fall further enriches the proceedings. Certainly, these and the Miranda/Ferdinand scenes from The Tempest are strikingly relevant to the Marivaux but there’s a lengthy extract from Troilus and Cressida at the beginning of the second half which really begs the question of why this technique is used.

The cast switch effortlessly between French and English and the audience is aided in its understanding with projected surtitles. Some of the actors are better than others but, even at their most proficient, there is a sense that the performances are the result of thorough drilling by the director rather than organic growth. ric de Dadelsen can certainly move his actors well and has a strong visual sense but there’s a feeling that little has come from the actors themselves, which would have helped in a play where we see human beings developing their awareness of the world and each other.

The strengths of the production are a play with a fascinating premise, taut direction and some very likeable performances, and these are enough to make this a show worth seeing, particularly as Marivaux’s play is seldom performed. It could have done with a less indulgent hand on the overall concept, though, and the embarrassingly cute epilogue (culled from As You Like It) should be cut forthwith.

If La Dispute is an exercise in experimentation, then this production is too, and the Chipping Norton Theatre and Le Preau, CDR de Vire in Nomandy are to be commended for their collaboration on it.

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