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What's love got to do with it?

The Triumph of Love makes the actors earn their fees at the Royal Exchange

Published on May 8th 2007.

What's love got to do with it?

An early biography of the 18th century playwright Pierre Marivaux told how he once arrived early at his lover’s house and caught her practising expressions of seduction in front of a mirror – the story goes that he fled, horrified at the duplicity of love.

Whether true or apocryphal, it neatly highlights the playwright’s obsession with the complexities of love. This has been the overriding theme of his 35 plays, including this current Exchange production, a story of love pitted against logic, which also reflects the contradictory preoccupations of Marivaux’s time: the pursuit of passion versus the rise of the rational.

When we meet the play, Princess Leonida and her maid servant Corina have just infiltrated a garden of philosophy, both dressed as men, in order that Leonida might woo Agis, a prince with whom she has fallen in love. There are only two problems. Firstly, Agis hates the faceless princess because her family killed his parents and usurped his throne. Secondly, he is under the influence of Hermocrates and his sister Leontina, both of whom have forsworn love in favour of more philosophical pursuits. Well, we’ve all been there…

Having learnt all of this via Corina’s deliberately clumsy recap in the first few minutes of the play, the pair are free to adopt their manly personas, Leonida vowing to stay in the garden long enough to win the Prince’s heart by any means necessary.

Thus we watch Leonida charming the guardians, by turns coquettish and simpering to snare the pompous Hermocrates, then passionate but proper to trap poor Leontina, leaving her real self (once she’s dropped the man-act) to win over Agis.

The play uses a light touch to dance around the intricate plot, ushering in a flurry of stolen moment and secret conversations and setting a nifty pace which neatly evokes the giddiness of love, helped along by the two 15 minutes intervals which split the play into three short, 45 minute acts. (Cue a collective sigh from those still numb from the mammoth first-half of previous Exchange production Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.)

The cast, too, are well up to their roles. Rae Hendrie as the princess leaps neatly from persona to persona, Terence Wilson and Brigit Forsyth’s sensible siblings are well judged in their fall from disdainful logic to zealous love and the comedy man-servants Harlequin and Dimas (played by Michael Moreland and John Axon, respectively) squeeze physical laughs out of what is, to be honest, not a very rich script.

Indeed, the energy the cast inject into their roles outmatches the meatiness of the dialogue, leaving it rather unbalanced. The same could also be said of the erotically charged props, such as the suddenly thrusting phallic hedgerow which, rather than emphasising an established mood, seemed to be trying to make a point all of its own.

And then there’s the whole business of love. In this play, affections are attached like velcro. While this fact serves well to mock the two beguiled philosophers whose “wisdom” is “unhinged by love”, it doesn’t mark enough of a contrast between these contrived, and rather cruelly-kindled passions and the love between the Princess and Agis, which we would have as the ‘real thing’.

Of course, this is probably the point. Love is a tricky thing to pin down and it was Marivaux’s deliberate failure to side either with love or rationality which perturbed his critics during his life. But, while, yes, equivocation in love is a fact of life, I can’t help but agree with my 18th century counterparts. Like a lover who has practised her seduction in front of a mirror, The Triumph of Love pulls all the right expressions, but it doesn’t quite ring true.

Royal Exchange Theatre (St Ann’s Square, City. 0161 833 9833 www.royalexchange.co.uk). From £8-£23.50. Until May 19

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