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The Guardsman

The Times, 13th October 2000, Benedict Nightingale

If Richard Burton had come home wearing a colonel’s uniform, or had climbed into bed camouflaged as a Roman centurion, do you think Elizabeth Taylor would have failed to recognise him? But in 1910 Hungary great actors were more guileful or sexy actresses more gullible – or so we must believe if Molnar’s comedy The Guardsman is to sustain its tension and its wonderful ambiguity.

Michael Pennington’s white-haired Nandor fears that after six months of marriage Greta Scacchi’s gorgeous young Ilona is tired of him. So the insecure thespian tests his actress-wife’s fidelity by strutting into her opera box sporting moustachios, a juvenile quiff, a weird Austro-Hungarian accent and a cavalry officer’s gear. And the actor’s play-acting or ploy-acting seems to work, because Ilona ends up half-encouraging his sexual advances.

This meeting and its aftermath provide both performers with marvellous opportunities, most of which they seize. Indeed, Pennington has seldom been better, first as the fretful, besotted, stalker that Nandor initially is, then as the confused mix of men his disguise forces him to be. You can see the anxious husband, desperate for his wife to resist him, peeping our from beneath the seducer’s lacquered hair. The one inwardly raves while the other displays delight: a comic challenge that turns out to be well within Pennington’s power.

But the final act presents Scacchi with her own challenge, one which (be warned) I can’t tell you without revealing a key twist of the plot. Up to then Ilona, often described as a cat, seems to be high on cream. She undulates and smiles, preens and sighs, effortlessly radiating feline confidence and independence of spirit.

But faced now with Nandor’s accusations, she first puts on a show of innocence so seamless she almost convinces him the guardsman never existed, and then, confronted with the fact of his disguise, reassures him that she saw through it all along.

Here’s where the play, always amusing, gets interesting. If Nandor disbelieves Ilona, he’s a cuckold. If he believes her, he’s a lesser actor than he thinks. And the  problem with Scacchi’s performance and Janet Suzman’s elegant production is that at the evening’s end the truth of the situation seems clearer than it should be. I won’t risk spoiling your enjoyment by giving details, but I can say that, when she played the role at the National 20 years ago, Diana Rigg kept Molnar’s ambiguity alive.

She also found depth in a play that Molnar, who himself had been unlucky in love, called a ‘perfectly agonising “ attempt” to work off the most searing pain of my young life’. Only a pretty desperate husband would use himself as bait to hook a rogue wife. Similarly, only a pretty dissatisfied wife would provoke such behaviour. Rigg projected the longing and unease of a woman who would ideally like to possess both a safe husband and a dangerous soldier. For all her undoubted charm, poise and wit, Scacchi can’t manage that.

Stage and Television Today, 19th October 2000, Gerald Berkowitz

A model of classy production, stylish direction and bravura playing, this revival of Molnar’s romantic comedy (in the version by Frank Marcus) declares its confident authority in the first seconds and never loses it.

Greta Scacchi and Michael Pennington play a married couple of grand actors, the sort for whom every utterance is a performance, and who are likely to be distracted from an intensely emotional scene by the question of whether his Cyrano or her Camille got the better reviews.

Convinced she is prone to stray, he disguises himself as an officer and woos her. When she seems to fall, he finds himself insanely jealous of himself; when she later denies the encounter, he is almost convinced it never happened.

Director Janet Suzman has exactly the right sense of the heightened reality and not-quite-parodic grand style for this cream pastry of a play, and guides her cast to a clear enjoyment of its acting opportunities.

In the showier role, Pennington not only plays both jealous husband and suave lover, turning each into a marvellous send-up of the type, but lets us peep at the one repeatedly threatening to break through the shell of the other. Sensitively, he makes it clear that on one level the husband knows he is being ridiculous, giving the fluff a necessary emotional anchor.

Scacchi balances his broad antics with languid underplaying, stealing scenes by calmly and beautifully posing in a series of elegant gowns by Charles Cusick Smith and adeptly sustaining right to the end the ambiguity of whether her character sees through the masquerade.

Strong support is provided by Nickolas Grace as an ironically bemused friend, and by Georgina Hale, giving a wicked impersonation of Ruth Gordon in the role of Scacchi’s adopted mother.

In all, the very model of boulevard comedy, played with all the élan, energy and stylishness this genre requires.

Surprising then, that shortly after the Guardsman opened, it was announced that its closing date would be October 28.

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