“Life has a way of sorting things out and leaving them in some sort of order”
Chichester Festival Theatre has a long-standing tradition of staging works by the French writer Jean Anouilh, which is continued by this production of his 1950 play The Rehearsal, but it is not terribly difficult to see why he has fallen out of favour with the vast majority of British theatres. Jeremy Sams, directing his own translation here, has pulled together a lusciously talented cast and a sumptuous set and costume design by William Dudley for the Minerva, but it is all sadly just window-dressing, albeit of a very high quality.
The play is set in 1950s France, in a chateau inhabited by the fabulously wealthy and the fatuously bored. To pass the time, they’re putting on a show – Marivaux’s The Double Inconstancy to be precise – but art is bleeding into life and vice versa. The feckless Count, the instigator of the whole affair, pressgangs their young governess into joining their company and soon finds his head turned by her fresh charms. This is to the consternation of his wife the Countess, who seeks solace in the arms of her own lover, and also of his official mistress Hortensia who sees her shakier position undermined.
Fortunately, life isn’t just a rehearsal, for a Marivaux play or otherwise – the novelty of these scenes soon wears off – but unfortunately, the direction the play takes is problematically dark, maliciously so, and not even the considerable talents of Edward Bennett can pull off this deviation. He plays Hero, an old friend of Tiger’s who is permanently sozzled and prone to periods of reflection in amongst the desperation and destruction he wreaks, guided to dastardly deeds by the manipulations of others but pulling too far from the world of the first act.
Performances elsewhere are naturally strong too – Jamie Glover’s Count, known as Tiger, is a constant source of energy, Niamh Cusack and Katherine Kingsley are deliciously acidic as his wife and lover respectively and as the one threatening them, Gabrielle Dempsey delivers great poise and even poignancy as the most ‘normal’ of the group. But the play remains a difficult one to stomach in its entirety and it doesn’t seem likely that Anouilh will break out of this little niche here in Chichester any time soon.