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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Mandate
Cottesloe Theatre       Autumn-Winter 2004

Here's an oddity - a farce written and set in Soviet Moscow in the 1920s. Even if it weren't particularly good, simple curiosity would drive theatre buffs to see it. And, while it is not a major rediscovery, it does offer its share of chuckles.

Nikolai Erdman, better known for his frequently revived play The Suicide, wrote this comedy in 1925 and set it a year earlier. Two bourgeois families are planning a marriage, not so much because the boy and girl are in love - they've hardly met - but to consolidate their fortunes in the new Bolshevik world.

The bride's family wants the groom's father's money, while the groom's father thinks the bride's brother is a Communist and might provide useful political contacts.

But the brother isn't a Party member, and therein lie the seeds of a classic farce situation of escalating lies and confusions.

While he tries to create and sustain the illusion that he is a card-carrying Communist, at least until the wedding, the groom's family gets sidetracked into thinking that the family cook is actually the Crown Princess Anastasia.

You can almost fill in the rest - people talking at cross purposes, confusing innocent bystanders for people they are not, rushing around to prevent the wrong people from meeting each other.

And there is even a touching and thought-provoking anchor in reality, in the realisation that these characters, members of a middle class that is officially not supposed to exist, can't decide whether to turn to the future or the past for security.

The only thing wrong with the play is not Erdman's fault, but theatre history's. This particular genre - the farce of confusion - has been developed over the past century into a much more frantic and fast-moving mode.

So if the opening situation lures you into expecting Ray Cooney-style madness, you're going to be disappointed.

Rather than continually upping the ante of farcical desperation, Erdman tends to take things to a level where, by modern standards, the fun is just getting started, and then leaving them there.

Director Declan Donnellan, who also provided the smooth and natural-sounding translation, does what he can to keep the energy level high by inserting some silent-film-style chase sequences.

But the fact is that you will have to readjust your internal clock to a slower rhythm and lower your expectations of chaotic action in order to enjoy the play fully.

By its very nature, a play like this doesn't provide complex acting roles, though Deborah Findlay as the would-be bride's ditzy mother, and Sinead Matthews as the cook who finds nothing odd in people treating her like the last of the Romanovs, generate the most fun.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Mandate - National Theatre 2004
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