Svengali review – absorbing gender-swap power play

·2 min read

How do you represent male power on stage without replicating the very structures you want to challenge? The solution in Eve Nicol’s absorbing play is to cast a woman in the role of a domineering man. With slicked-back hair and cool summer suit, Chloe-Ann Tylor brings a disruptive distance to the character she plays. She is at once the manipulative patriarch, driven by some combination of testosterone and urge to control, and something else altogether. It is as if her every gesture comes with a question mark, making this powerful man’s urges seem not only damaging but strange.

Tylor is very good. Rooted, physically precise and sonorous, she portrays the Svengali character who first appeared in Trilby, George Du Maurier’s 19th-century novel. He is now re-imagined by Nicol, who also directs, as an ambitious modern-day tennis coach. Appearing like a hardcore Henry Higgins, bending the world to his will, he picks up Trilby, a young woman with no apparent skills in the game, in order to break her down, re-programme her and build her up as a grand-slam champion.

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Compliant and hypnotised, Trilby battles her way from the US Open to Wimbledon with the ferocity of a machine. Her coach, operating in an uncertain area between lust and sadism, feeds on her success even though that very success – witness Eliza Doolittle – is what will inevitably pull her away from him.

At a time when questions of coercion, exploitation and abuse are being asked in sport, as they have been in fashion and entertainment, Nicol’s play attempts to get under the skin of a man bewitched by his own power. It feels grimly appropriate that Trilby has as little say in the play as she does in her career.

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