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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Servant To Two Masters
The Other Place, Stratford      Autumn 1999

(Scroll down for our return visit to the London transfer)

Carlo Goldoni's 1746 farce is a masterful amalgam of stock comic types, an almost incomprehensibly complex plot, mistaken identities, misdirected messages, high wit, low slapstick and opportunities for bravura performances.

This Royal Shakespeare Company - Young Vic coproduction romps through the silliness with high spirits and absolute comic confidence, making for an evening of total delight.

To grossly oversimplify the plot, a woman disguised as a man has come in search of her lover to the very inn where he is staying, and what's more, they both share the same manservant.

Clearly the job of the play will be to keep these two apart as long as possible, which is accomplished in great measure by the errors and innocently self-serving lies of the servant.

(There's also a woman who has somehow become engaged to the woman in disguise, her jealous lover, their confused families, and assorted servants and innkeepers to keep things from getting too simple.)

At the centre is the servant Truffaldino, played by Jason Watkins as a whirlwind of frantic energy and beguiling charm recalling the young Jim Dale.

Trying to hide the fact that he's drawing two salaries, he does all that could be done to complicate the plot even further, inventing lie after lie, twisting himself into knots of invention and amazing himself as much as us with his success.

To this, Watkins adds a shameless and irresistible flirtation with the audience and an extraordinary acrobatic grace.

Claire Cox shines as the disguised woman, all bluff and swagger on the outside and dewy-eyed femininity within, and Michelle Butterfly is a no-nonsense lady's maid who, as is the wont with such figures, is smarter and more clear-headed than anyone else, while Orlando Seale is the jealous lover, great of heart and small of brain.

Lee Hall's new adaptation of the play is very modern in tone, mixing happy anachronisms with puns, jokes and double entendres that may well be three centuries old. (For example, he makes no attempt to resist the implications of the British dessert called Spotted Dick.)

Still, much of the humour is visual, from Watkins' extended riff on sealing a letter, which recalls Buster Keaton in its complexity and perfect timing, to his turning the audience into a living clothesline.

Among other delights, you'll witness something you've heard of all your life but may never have seen: an actual slap stick.

So great credit to director Tim Supple and to the entire cast, clearly enjoying the opportunity to let out the stops and play comedy with an energy and authority one too rarely sees.

Gerald Berkowitz


New Ambassador's Theatre Spring 2000 (revived winter 2000 and summer 2001)

This revival of last year's RSC-Young Vic production is still a delightfully farcical romp, despite some significant restaging and an almost complete cast change.

Goldoni's 18th century farce combines two impossibly complex plots into a totally mad melange. Try to follow this: a wily servant hires himself out to two visitors to an inn, and has to keep them from finding out about each other, even while he repeatedly confuses messages, orders and laundry.

Meanwhile, one of the masters is a woman in disguise, come in search of her banished lover (who is, of course, the other master), and she has problems of her own, with a father trying to marry his daughter to her, and the girl's jealous boyfriend.

Got it? Suffice to say that absolutely everything that happens complicates matters somehow, and that poor servant, whose instinctive way of coping with a problem is to lie his way out of it, is caught in the middle.

How fortunate, then, that a performer with the irresistible charm, not to mention acrobatic skills and incredible reserves of energy, of Jason Watkins is playing the role.

It is his mastery of physical comedy that holds the play together, whether he is writhing in agonies of inventing a lie or practically floating away in delight when it works.

Originally staged on a transverse playing area, with the audience on both sides, the play has been redesigned for a proscenium stage, and there is some undoubted loss of intimacy and ease of audience contact as a result.

The best way to put it is that the laughs are all still there, but what seemed like effortless grace last year is now too clearly the result of considerable effort, as the actors have to push the jokes at us.

Some of the snap and freshness is gone, too, though I suspect that only someone who had seen the original would notice. In the almost entirely new supporting cast, only Paul Bentall, as the eager father who tries to be forceful but is an instinctive groveller, manages to bring much to his role.

As a result, it is now even more of a one-man show for Jason Watkins than it originally was, and the hardest-working actor on the London stage carries the burden with astonishing comic skill.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  A Servant To Two Masters - RSC Stratford 1999, London 2000
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