It takes a very special actress to burst the fey, densely plotted artifice that comes with the plays of Marivaux, but Helen McCrory is a very special talent indeed. Her amazing performance last year in “How I Learned to Drive” — a portrait of awakened sexuality both confident and fearful — transformed Paula Vogel’s play, and McCrory is scarcely less commanding amid the thicket of amorous intrigue that defines “The Triumph of Love.” Her surroundings on this occasion, however, aren’t nearly as happy as they were at the Donmar Warehouse last year, and even the staunchest of admirers may have trouble sitting through the (intermissionless) evening.
The problem is a production that is pitched somewhere between the Keystone Kops and “As You Like It” — McCrory and sidekick Tonia Chauvet would make a terrific Rosalind and Celia — of a play that is beloved by academics but is arid and even dull in performance, defying a decidedly eccentric supporting cast to bring it to tingling life.
This is the third Marivaux staging, following Neil Bartlett’s “The Dispute” and a visiting French- language run-through of “The Game of Love and Chance,” in what amounts to a mini-festival of the French dramatist over the last several months. But I’m afraid the current evening is one primarily for completists, although there’s unlikely to be anyone not left at least somewhat spellbound by the husky-voiced siren at its center.
McCrory plays Leonide, a cunning princess whose would-be prince, her beloved Agis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has been sequestered away following the deaths of his parents in the gardens of the philosopher Hermocrate (Colin Stinton) and her sister Leontine (Linda Bassett). Driven by “some strange inspiration,” Leonide wants to put right the past wrongs between the families even as she succumbs to a passion beyond the realm of reason where the play so tenaciously lies. What ensues is an elaborate exercise in disguise that rivals even Shakespeare when it comes to allowing a cross-dressing heroine to charm virtually everyone within sight. Leonide is pursued to varying degrees by the play’s more civilized classes while the others — Marivaux’s answer to Shakespeare’s clowns and rustics — discuss “hickery trickery” and some of the more peculiar turns-of-phrase in Martin Crimp’s new version.
The play is about confusion — about lust percolating beneath a cerebral analysis (even a fear) of love — and it’s a shame that James Macdonald’s hard-working production doesn’t cut a clearer path to its undeniable heart. Too often, McCrory’s gravelly integrity appears to occupy a different play from the rest of the cast, several of whom seem to be suppressing giggles throughout as if even they couldn’t believe just how severely they had been cast against type.
Stinton’s clipped, deadpan manner is ideal for the plays of Howard Korder and David Mamet, but it’s hard to know what to make of his poker-faced philosophe here, beyond wishing that his moments of feyness had been edited out.
Likewise, Bassett deserves credit for venturing 180 degrees from the contemporary and often working-class milieu of Ayub Khan-Din (in “East Is East”) and Caryl Churchill that she has charted so memorably and well. But her funny faces and grimaces reap diminishing returns, and they’re not helped by an initial costume (courtesy designer Nathalie Gibbs) resembling an Oscar-night reject.
At times, it’s as if Macdonald took his cue from the misbegotten 1997 Broadway musical of the same material, with the difference that this run-through offers no single moment as piercing as Betty Buckley’s rendition of the song “Serenity.”
Still, if an abiding facetiousness does prevail, McCrory always yanks the proceedings down to earth — or, more accurately, to the sandy floor of Jeremy Herbert’s set, backed by some trompe l’oeil foliage and an ever-rotating period clock. As this actress plays the role, even the most stylized pose never lets you forget the very real person at hand: She’s a figure of gravitas and passion in a staging more frenetic than it is fervent, though I suppose in a play packed with subterfuge there’s something nice — in performance terms — when truth does triumph.