The Dispute by Marivaux
Burton Taylor Theatre, 5-9.11.02

'I believe that a child who had been brought up in complete solitude, remote from all association {which would be a hard experiment to make} would yet have some sort of speech to express his ideas…But it is yet to be known what language this child would speak'
Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

It is precisely this experiment which makes up the core of Neil Bartlett's superb translation of The Dispute by Marivaux playing at the Burton Taylor theatre this week.

Four teenagers, each hermetically sealed from society until the age of 19, are released from solitude and brought together at the behest of a scientist prince who would solve the nature/nurture dispute once and for all. He takes his lover, Hermiane, to a secluded 'wilderness' on his estate and prepares her for "a most original entertainment'. These bored, aristocratic malcontents are our representatives on stage and make our own voyeuristic urges uncomfortably explicit. Stealthy stage-managers, they wait for a drama they have orchestrated to unfurl; the eighteenth century equivalent of reality television. We squirm with the irresistible seediness of it all, impatient to see 'the men and women of those very first days…all re-enacted before our eyes.' The events she sees are so disturbing Hermiane begs for release, she 'can't watch any more'and the audience's compliant silence somehow poses a question we are not comfortable with being asked: initially assured of our moral superiority, Marivaux asks us where the true social malaise lies if we are prepared to watch what Hermiane will not.

The children are actors in a play, thrown to the lions without a script or even the slightest idea about social interaction. On first seeing Egle, Azor is unable to articulate his feelings, 'robbed' of his speech he expresses admiration and sexual attraction through touch. Unashamed of emotion, all the children express themselves with a physicality and honesty kept in check in the 'real world' of the court. This comes through in the production but there was a guardedness in the actors' physical dealings with each other which did not sit altogether comfortably with the text. However, Christina Bejan is, at times exquisite as Egle: just released, she spies herself in a puddle and declares:
'I'm going to spend my whole life staring at myself; I'm going to love myself in a minute'
It is a touching portrayal mingling Lacanian self-absorption with a love of aesthetics reminiscent of pre-lapsarian Eve in Paradise Lost who is also entranced by her own beauty. Bejan is perfectly offset by Katherine Eddy who plays her malevolent nurse Carise; slithering around the set, one cannot help but be reminded of Satan scouting around Eden. Her malicious manipulation of their sexual awakening makes apparent the absence of a deity in this bastardised Eden, one fears that the prince has appointed himself such a role. It is certainly no paradise.

The production boasts an original score which is both charming and haunting, capturing perfectly the ambivalence the audience feels towards the teenagers. We are never shown a pastoral idyll of innocence, a dark underbelly is always present. That the first scenes of human contact are so humorous implicates us in the children's demise, we are always conscious that their lives have been orchestrated for the amusement of others - to laugh at their antics is to comply with the rules of the Prince's game. We too are responsible for the play's outcome. Finally it is not their morality which is questioned but our own.

Michelle Jordan, 5.11.02