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From his very first syllable, a geologically over-extended “Ye-e-es?”, we know (if we were ever in doubt) that Peter Bowles will be giving us a Peter Bowles performance. Age has brought him ever closer to self-parody, as he puts a paradoxical amount of energy into appearing languid. In this new translation of Jean Anouilh’s 1952 play, he plays a retired general constantly trying to escape the clutches of his hypochondriacally bed-ridden wife for a bit of womanising. When the long-standing love of his life arrives unexpectedly (they met 17 years earlier at a military ball, dancing to the waltz of the title, and amazingly have loved each other chastely ever since), he feels it may finally be time to divorce . . . but then his lover, when delirious, has an encounter with the general’s young male secretary. . .
It is relatively rare to hear Ranjit Bolt make a prose translation. His verse work sets the metre humming like high-voltage electric cables; in prose, one can still hear the deftness with which he renders work across languages, but there is also less of a hiding place for his misjudgments. A fondness for fruity expletives (a Bolt hallmark) may fit the character of the general, but it jars with the period setting of 1910, the haut-bourgeois social context and above all the tone of Anouilh, who used rather more delicacy in dissecting his chosen topics; in this case, he is concerned with the damage wrought by social and moral codes upon our individual personal searches for happiness and fulfilment. Nor were matters helped on the press night by Bowles being so shaky on lines that he palpably put some of his fellow actors off.
Angus Jackson’s production has a number of nice touches and only one serious false note, the over-exaggeration of the general’s daughters’ irritating baby-doll stupidity. I intend no insult in saying that Maggie Steed as the general’s wife gives at least as fine a performance as a disembodied voice from offstage as she does when
finally appearing before us. Anouilh’s superficially happy ending does not disguise the mercilessness of his basic observation that an opportunity once wasted can
never be regained.
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