Is inconstancy innate? Which sex is more likely to play the adulterer first? These questions are just the starting point for Marivaux’s bleak comedy, “La Dispute,” which leaves audiences in no doubt whatsoever as to the modern-day applicability of a 1744 play. In a rare London sighting of this play as a co-venture between the Royal Shakespeare Co. and the Lyric Theater, Hammersmith, Neil Bartlett’s bruising production gets a head start on various Marivaux revivals still to come — the Almeida tackles “The Triumph of Love” late in the summer, while director Jean-Pierre Vincent’s French-language “The Game of Love and Chance” is due in June as part of the London International Festival of Theater (LIFT).
But even on its own, the play is a reclamation that risks comparison with an RSC venture from a decade ago, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” in its fierce investigation into the not always honorable ways of the heart.
“I can’t watch any more of this,” Hermiane (Judith Scott) protests at the end , balking at the experiment undertaken by a coolly spoken Prince (Crispin Redman) on a country estate-turned-theater stage.
Audiences, however, may well appreciate the contemporary-seeming scalpel taken to feelings of love and lust amid a cloistered environment that — for all its hermeticism — is in no way immune to cruelty.
As the Prince presents it, he is following up an experiment begun several decades ago at the court of his father pertaining to an issue that remains unresolved: Was “the first fidelity, the first betrayal” committed by man or woman.
To that end, he has constructed a mock-Eden populated by two people of each sex who are about to be released from their respective enclosures into the world so that, as the Prince describes it, “the very first loves will begin.”
Their guides through this new realm called desire will be Mesrou (Neil Reidman) and his sister Carise (Adjoa Andoh), whose emergence dressed as jailers suggests that even in Eden, paradise has been postponed.
And so Egle (the squeaky-voiced Hayley Carmichael) shyly and tentatively takes her place in this embryonic society only to submit to that first attraction known as the self — Marivaux clearly knew his Narcissus myth — once she espies her reflection in a puddle. But no sooner does Azor (Martin Freeman) arrive than Egle is suitably smitten.
“You’re perfect — differently,” is her stunned summation in one of many particularly felicitous lines of director-designer Bartlett’s notably fleet translation.
Two further uninitiates enter the scene, as well: the solipsistic Adine (Charlotte Randle) and the eternally childlike Mesrin (an endearing John Padden). And yet, anyone expecting a schematic double-wedding to be the result hasn’t counted on Marivaux’s psychological cunning or on the Shakespearean ease with which he jumbles the quartet’s affections. (Among other things, the play sometimes reads as a French gloss on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) While Carise advises deprivation as the way to keep love’s fires lit (indifference, she says, is the result otherwise), Adine stoops to the most callous of schemes to mortify Egle.
The men, at the same time, discover a delight in similarity: “You’re like me, aren’t you?” Azor asks in wonderment, touring Mesrin’s body as if flesh itself were wholly uncharted territory. Mesrin, in turn, cannot contain his exuberance. “Let’s jump one more time,” he says in glee, leaping up and down the stage into which he has been sent like a human rat in an erotically charged maze.
In other hands, “La Dispute” could be too precious by half, but Bartlett invests the proceedings with a canny emotionalism that fully suits a play whose characters are forever voicing emotions they have discovered as if for the first time. (One wonders, though, what women will make of a play that suggests that the fairer sex’s first impulse, in one another’s company, is to turn catty.)
And as was true of his 1990 National Theater staging of Racine’s “Berenice” with Lindsay Duncan, this director knows how to release what is modern about the material without imposing upon it a false contemporaneity that would demean either the source text or the audience.
The cast members are as young and eager as the people they portray — if anything, the female participants in the game are a shade too green — and one can’t help but look on with affection turned to dismay as the experiment runs its deeply unsettling course.
Relocated in this production to the early days of this century as a sort of aristocrats’ caprice, the play reveals its darkest colors in a wordless conclusion shot through with sorrow and fear, as the human guinea pigs learn collectively that the facts of life are often fraught and that the dispute — as any audience member knows — is still being waged today.