Child's play

Theatre byDavid Jays

When Iris Murdoch and John Bayley first fell for each other, a meeting of donnish minds became an amorous kindergarten. Bayley's recent memoir records their childlike coo and chuckle, their paddling fingers and exploratory cuddles. There's something immensely touching and wilful about their sophisticated intelligence slipping the guards of its own adult knowledge and making for Eden.

Life burdened or corroded by knowledge informs the premise of The Dispute. Neil Bartlett (as translator, director and designer) sets Marivaux's 1744 play at a between-the-wars fete-champetre for the idle rich. Powdered wigs mingle with black tie, disconsolate cigarettes smear the air, a spot of greedy rutting passes the time. The court, having little else to do, are chewing over original infidelity: was man or woman the first to be unfaithful? The prince, a silly-ass voluptuary, blindfolds his mistrustful mistress and brings her to observe the results of a unique human experiment. Four babies, two of each sex, have been reared in complete isolation but for two black servants. Now they have reached adulthood, the prince proposes to let loose these innocents and examine their first steps of love and jealousy.

Like Mozart's CosI fan tutte or de Sade's anatomies of desire, this diamond-sharp play cruelly and comically squeezes human experience into a constricting scientific hypothesis. Bartlett's staging catches a perversely dispass-ionate upbringing, especially as the youngsters wear white asylum garb, and their warders stalk in severe charcoal, keys at their waist. When stumpy little Egle timidly edges into view, she hugs the walls and shudders with terror, sobbing and laughing at unimaginable enlargement. "I don't think I've been in such a big space ever," she exclaims, and as she slowly pounds the tiny stage at The Other Place in Stratford, you imagine the hutch that must previously have bounded her universe.

Hayley Carmichael plays Egle like a cropped and wobbly sparrow. Finding her reflection in a puddle, the image so entrances her that she presses her nose into the water. All four children are splay-footed strangers in their own bodies: one acutely sensitised lad (Martin Freeman) paddles tentatively back and forth, while the other (John Padden's scampering ragamuffin) bounds giddy as a kangaroo. The second girl, Adine (Charlotte Randle), trails lace and strikes gawky attitudes like an Isadora Duncan high on her own beauty. The actors find action immediately responsive to thought: Carmichael and Freeman lean together like a pair of planks for their first gasping embrace, exploring the knobbly physicality of elbows and ear lobes, and Egle's first kiss is Freeman gnawing at her knuckles.

In a brilliantly buoyant scene, the two boys meet in puppyish excitement, bounding about the stage. "We'll have a laugh," Padden exults, "we'll have a jump, right? I'm jumping already." They punch and pinch and tweak each other's bits. But alongside physical release comes a rush of emotions - pride, desire, possessiveness, boredom - that are less easy to assimilate. Egle, delighted by the moving toyshop of new attraction, aghast that hurt and pleasure can collide, scampers to keep up with her thoughts, shaking her head to settle these new notions.

Audiences too may shake their heads at this brilliantly original play: it was unsuccessful when first performed, but now feels unnervingly modern and sceptical. The Dispute is a taunting experiment in upbringing apparently outside culture, but Marivaux, writing between Voltaire and Rousseau, between Le Misanthrope and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was equally a product of his time. Nature makes his women rivalrous coquettes, and all four children grow up with unquestioned racial prejudice. "You're really black," Egle informs her keepers, "you must have run a mile when you first saw each other." Here, the servants are immensely poised warders, ambiguously complicit in the experiment, and increasingly uneasy about its effects. The magnificently unyielding Adjoa Andoh tells her charges, "You were made for each other" - an icy sliver of irony embedded in her regard for these exercises in amoral eugenics.

Lights flare like security lamps at each new entrance, while a subdued glow from the balcony reminds us of the watching aristocrats. However fascinating it is to see these amorous anatomies, the dysfunctional specimens are cruelly untutored in desire. The Dispute ends abruptly, but not before distress has magnified for the hapless youngsters. Bartlett doesn't end his production as callously as did Stanislas Nordey (his Avignon version visited London in 1997), in which the four victims were executed when the experiment was done. This superbly acute production, however, keeps a keen but concerned eye on Marivaux's laboratory love-rats.

"The Dispute" plays at Stratford (until 20 March), Poole (23-27 March), Brighton (30 March-3 April), Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (15 April-22 May) and Lisbon (26-29 May). Box office: 01789 295623

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet