Putting on a translated play is brave. Nothing quite beats the native tongue for naturalness, and as the oft repeated maxim that ‘Americans don’t understand irony’ reminds us, there is a certainly a perception that different nationalities harbour different ideas about what is funny and what is not. Julia Hartley’s decision to translate the play herself then is daring, but it’s also brilliant. Taking full advantage of whatever the translator’s version of ‘poetic license’ is, Hartley has nuanced the script masterfully to make it work for both a British audience and her particular idea for the production. Partly inspired by P.G. Woodhouse’s Bertie Wooster novels, Hartley transports this nineteenth century French comedy into the 1920s with sharp suits, motor cars and the Charleston, and surprisingly not a line of it jars. In fact what the production seems to gain through this integration is an incredible depth and variety.
The young Valentin is played with particular sensitivity by Orowa Sikder, who masters slapstick comedy, whip-smart dialogue, provocative chemistry and occasionally more serious and solemn moments seemingly without effort. He has remarkable flair, which is remarkably appropriate given his role as a charmingly decadent and slightly dangerous young man. Yet Himanshu Kaul, playing his uncle, does not allow himself to be upstaged. As the foil to Valentin, his gravity is perfectly pitched, and whilst both Sikder and Kaul could do with a little more work on smoothing out the ‘practised’ look of their movements, their chemistry as a pair is very believable and engaging. This chemistry and dynamism is carried through to the dialogue, which has moments of true brilliance in delivery. However, there are a few moments where opportunities have been left unexploited, or timing has been badly brought off. With a little direction, such snags could be worked out of the production.
Katie Ebner-Landy also deserves a mention for her fortifying performance as the Baroness. A bizarre hybrid between Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Lady Bracknell and a Viking, Ebner-Landy is both hilarious and terrifying as the slightly batty mother of the eligible heiress Cecile, whose more colourful moments involved her actually growling at Kaul’s character and demonstrating the shimmy which her daughter should use to attract young men. There are moments where the sheer bombastic energy of the Baroness feels a little overdone, but there is also a sense that once she is put in an enormous white wig and a huge dress, it will all feel horribly natural.
The tragedy of being a drama editor is that I don’t actually get to see much drama, but come essay crisis or paper deadline, I will be seeing this. I suggest you do the same.
**** 4 stars