MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, PIERRE AUGUSTIN DE BEAUMARCHAIS, 2002
Michael Billington, The Guardian
Napoleon famously called Beaumarchais's 1781 comedy "the revolution in action". But even if the play has been virtually obliterated by the Mozart/Da Ponte opera, Helena Kaut-Howson's brilliant revival confirms that it is a masterpiece in its own right, arguably the most subversive comedy ever written.
What we see is a dual contest of wills, both political and sexual. On the one hand there is the battle between the predatory Count Almaviva and his valet Figaro, whose intended bride, Suzanna, is the cherished prize. It is a battle the count loses at every turn, and here, far more than in the opera, it functions as a criticism of the deference paid to aristocracy. But the play also develops into a contest of gender: both the lecherous count and the cocky Figaro are in the end outwitted by their respective partners and left craving forgiveness.
The beauty of Kaut-Howson's production, however, is that it allows Beaumarchais's subversion to emerge through laughter. It starts, ominously, with one of the blocks bearing the count's wigs toppling off a shelf into a waiting basket beneath. But Kaut-Howson allows the comic situations to convey the message. At one point, for instance, Suzanna is desperately trying to communicate to Figaro that the count has neglected to place a seal on Cherubino's military commission. Kaut-Howson has the actress, the sparkling Nina Sosanya, bark and flap her hands like the aquatic mammal - which is both ridiculously funny and a reminder that Suzanna is as adroit as her partner.
Like all great comedy, Beaumarchais's play has a breathtaking sanity. It demonstrates that accidents of birth, whether of class or of gender, confer no automatic privilege. And, although the play is always seen as proof of French clockwork precision, Kaut-Howson constantly reminds us of its Spanish setting, with Figaro leading the peasants in a flamenco dance to celebrate his wedding. Johanna Bryant's design, with its transparent glass doors in the countess's bedroom and its suspended rockery, also allows us to understand - far more clearly than in most opera productions - precisely who is deceiving whom.
Robert Cogo-Fawcett and Braham Murray have come up with a wittily condensed translation; it topically reminds us that Figaro, in one of his multiple guises, was a writer banned by Mohammedan mullahs. Kulvinder Ghir lends Figaro exactly the right mix of bounce and vulnerability. And there is first-rate work from Simon Robson as the haughtily foolish Almaviva, Emma Cunningham as the neglected but easily aroused countess and Samuel Barnett as a cheeky, sexually omnivorous Cherubino. Aside from the fact that the concluding lyrics are barely comprehensible, this is a perfect revival of a comedy that helped to change history.