New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 14 December, 2000

Sometimes you realise that, with the best will in the world, you've been watching a play through the wrong eyes. If you're lucky, you catch on in time, before you have dismissed the show for not being what it never set out to be anyway. So it is with me and Tim Supple's RSC/Young Vic production, in Lee Hall's translation, of A Servant To Two Masters, now in the West End after previous lauded runs at The Other Place in Stratford and Supple's former home at the Vic itself.

I thought I knew Carlo Goldoni's play: although not household-familiar, it is popular enough in theatre circles for a clutch of productions to have been staged in the last few years alone. From these outings, I believed myself to be on easy terms with the frenzied, scrambling farce as wily, engaging manservant Truffaldino flogs himself into the ground trying to serve two masters simultaneously without either knowing of the arrangement with the other. This was, after all, the first commedia dell'Arte piece ever to be fully scripted rather than simply providing a loose framework for various comic riffs. And, for much of the time as I sat in the New Ambassadors the other night, I judged Supple and Hall's version against those standards and found it wanting. The thought and energy were there, especially in Jason Watkins's astounding, indefatigable Truffaldino, but the pace seemed to drag unconscionably: two and three-quarter hours for a commedia play! And what were those strange minor-key modulations in playing style doing there?

Eventually I twigged: those modulations are the point of this production. Supple and Hall maintain that there's more to this play than just scurrying around serving two meals or airing two trunkfuls of clothes at once. In between the dinner-time gags (too many, too blunt) about spotted dick, Truffaldino keeps pointing out that he's responding to the necessities of the economic climate in order to be able to eat. His beloved maid Smeraldina (a coolly no-bullshit Catherine Tate) asserts her proto-feminist perspective and forthright independence of mind against other servants and the master of her household alike. Most tellingly, when one of Truffaldino's "masters" is revealed to be a woman travelling in male incognito and the other her lover, their reunion is strongly tempered by the murder and exile in the background of their own story.

Hall labours a bit to bring these contrasting strains out, and they don't always sound in perfect dramatic harmony. Most of the farcical business, too, relies for its impact on being exceedingly articulated and forsakes the 120 mph aspect of playing. In the end, though, however one feels about the combination of tones, it is Watkins's amazing central performance that sticks in the mind, and rightly so.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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