Translated by Jeremy Sams
Directed by Jeremy Sams
The Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Friday 8th May 2015
Edward Bennett as Hero
Jamie Glover as The Count
Joseph Arkley as Villebosse
Simon Dutton as Damiens
Niamh Cusack as The Countess
Katerine Kingsley as Hortensia
Gabrielle Dempsey as Lucile
Ben Lydon as the Valet
The Rehearsal was written in 1950 and is one of the great plays “about producing a play.” The Jeremy Sams translation dates back to 1996, but this time he’s directing it himself. As the programme notes, Jean Anouilh was particularly highly-rated in the 1950s and 1960s, with less recent attention than he deserves.
Count Tiger is known for his lavish parties at the Chateau de Ferbroques. It’s 1950. In three days he’s going to produce an amateur version of Marivaux’s play Double Inconstancy, in Louis XIV era costume to perform at a party. The play is an apt choice. It will feature his wife The Countess (it’s her chateau), Hortensia who is Tiger’s mistress, Villebosse, the Countess’s toy boy, and Lucile who is nanny to the twelve orphans housed in the chateau. Add Monsieur Damiens, Lucille’s godfather and lawyer to the Countess. And, most importantly, Hero, an alcoholic old friend of Tiger.
What a cast! I’ll just list the existing links on this blog. Edward Bennett was my choice for “Best Actor of 2014” for Love’s Labours Lost / Love’s Labours Won at the RSC, and earlier The School for Scandal at Bath, one of the best things we saw in 2012. We saw Jamie Glover in Chichester six months ago as Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband and he also directed Miss Julie / The Black Comedy at Chichester last year. Katherine Kingsley was Helena in the Grandage Company A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Miranda in Relative Values at Bath.
The set in the interval … dust sheets are gone
You enter the Minerva to see the set shrouded in dustcloths with ladders and steps around. These gradually get taken away over the course of the play. The Countess enters from the auditorium side to speak to her lawyer, Damiens, already costumed for the Marivaux play, into which he has been dragooned into taking part. In a clever touch, the men’s 18th century clobber looks real. The women are in designer crosses between 18th century and “now” (1950). The first half sets out the relationships. The Countess is the villain of the piece, and her marriage with Tiger is open, wide open. Tiger openly has Hortensia as a mistress, she openly has Villebosse as a toyboy. Villebosse with harlequin costume and toothbrush moustache is the pugnacious comedy role early on, bent on protecting his honour and dignity. He’s younger and less sophisticated than the aristocrats, coming from a farm in Carcassone, albeit a farm with a 15th century moat still intact. The sophisticated bitchiness between the Countess and Hortensia is a joy throughout.
Lucile (Gabrielle Dempsey) and Count Tiger (Jamie Glover)
Trouble is the Count has taken a fancy to Lucile, who has been employed to look after the twelve orphans the Countess is obliged to house every summer as part of her aunt’s will, which bequeathed her the chateau. But Lucile, goddaughter of the lawyer Damiens, is only twenty. Young, innocent, middle class. No one minds aristocratic dalliances and infidelities, but Tiger fancying a woman outside their class is unacceptable to the Countess and Hortensia. Falling in LOVE would be even worse. People of their class don’t do that. Tiger has cast Lucile as Sylvia, the young innocent, in the Marivaux play, causing jealousy and consternation. The first half revolves around Tiger’s more and more open avowal of love for Lucile. So Jamie Glover very much dominates. Gabrielle Dempsey is a triumph of reactive acting, wordlessly sliding between reacting as Lucile and as her role in the Marivaux, Sylvia.
Hero (Edward Bennett) and Villabosse (Joseph Arkley)
Hero is Tiger’s old school friend, an alcoholic. They were avowed blood brothers. Villebosse takes great exception to the languid, drunken Hero, which Hero waves aside. In much of the first half, Hero is watching. He has some exquisite comedy moments. We went out in the interval and my companion said, ‘Phew! Stunning acting all round.’ I agreed, but said I was surprised that Hero was quite a minor, though very funny part so far.
Nothing prepared us for part two!
Hortensia (Katherine Kingsley, seated) and the Countess (Niamh Cusack)
The Countess and Hortensia (a pair of Alpha Females if ever you saw any) decide to plot against Lucile by pretending to lose an emerald ring. They’re not going to plant it on her, just humiliate her by having her room searched, which would tell her she was a servant, nothing more. There is a marvellous scene where The Countess sends Lucile packing, then has to rescind it when Tiger intervenes. Throughout, Lucile is just reacting. Reacting brilliantly too. Too late, Tiger has cemented his relationship with Lucile. So the Countess persuades Hero to go and seduce the innocent Lucile. There are performances and performances. Edward Bennett has proved himself in three plays to be one of the best comic actors I’ve seen. In this play he has a solo section to the silent Lucile in her garret bedroom which must be 15 or 20 minutes long. The comedy has become a tragedy. It was one of the great, most intense solo performances I’ve seen, probably the best since Mark Rylance in La Bête, and that is the highest praise we can give. The La Bête comparison of sublime reactive acting carries through to Gabrielle Dempsey’s reactions, as she gradually starts to shake from head to foot.
Hero (Edward Bennett) and Tiger (Jamie Glover)
The casting is perfect. Niamh Cusack and Katherie Kingsley are both tall, sophisticated, beautifully dressed. Lucile is much shorter, younger. Jamie Glover does aristocrats with aplomb, Joseph Arkley is stroppy belligerent youth personified. And there’s Edward Bennett. No plot spoilers on the ending.
The play itself was marvellous, let alone the translation, production and performance. It’s only on for four weeks, though hopefully it will be revived and transfer as soon as possible.
How good did we think it is? We came home and booked immediately to see it again in the last week of the run. I went online to order the script, but couldn’t see the Jeremy Sams translation, which is the one I want.
Edward Bennett as Hero
SECOND VIEWING – Monday 8th June 19.45
I meant it when I said I was going again. This was fascinating and I must do it more often. In my days stuck on lights I often saw plays several times, but that was in a row. A month’s gap is different, and this takes us from an early preview (with a guy with a clipboard making feverish notes a few seats away) to an established production. I was in exactly the same position both times, just one seat different.
The start is different and improved. In the preview, we had the lawyer, Damiens, and the Countess enter from the “audience tunnel” and the Countess delivered her opening lines with her back to most of us and at a lower volume. Tonight a phone was ringing under a dust cloth. She went and found it, whispered a few words then did the opening speech louder and clearer and facing most of us. Better. Funny too because it points up the anachronism of the men wearing 18th century costume for the Marivaux, but the phone drags us into the 20th century. An inspired change.
The play rehearsal with direction and argument was both clearer and broader. In retrospect, in the earlier one you were sometimes unsure whether it was “here and now” or a scene from the Marivaux. Now the distinction is clearer and the whole scene plays even funnier.
Though a lot of things were clearer and better pointed, it felt less spontaneous as a whole. We both felt that there had been an urgency that the first couple of days adds.
A major change, from exactly the same angle was the Count / Lucile scene leading up to their kiss near the end of Act One. In the earlier one, Lucile was by the back door facing out and we marveled at her wonderful reactive acting. They’d switched through 180 degrees so Jamie Glover’s Count was facing out and she was three quarters facing the back. So we didn’t see nearly as much of her reactions. That was a definite minus. Glover is powerful enough to work perfectly with his back partly to the audience, but you can’t view her facial expressions enough from the new angle.
We thought there were minor changes right through Hero’s big seduction scene.
Anyway, still five star. But I’d like to do this second viewing after a gap with other major productions – they have to be really, really good.
We booked for two of us and had to select single seats, not together. In fact, Karen had two empty seats next to her and the theatre was not full (three quarters? Maybe 85%?). There were several places where we could have sat together. This was explained to me at Bath. Virtually all theatres buy in the same seat booking programme, whatever the interface or colours onscreen. The programme won’t allow you to book leaving one empty seat, so if there are three seats together you can’t book two, because it leaves one. This happened all over, so I booked two separate seats. Bath took the trouble to phone, explain the problem, and ask if we wanted to sit next to each other, and changed the tickets before posting. Brilliant service from Bath Theatre Royal Box Office there. But apparently theatres can’t over-ride this built in aspect.
Free parking in the evening, really plentiful loos, no queues, great rake, you can see from every seat. Ice cream £2.50 instead of £3 to £4 elsewhere.