Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Misanthrope

Photo by Brett Boardman

Bell Shakespeare in association with Griffin Theatre Company present THE MISANTHROPE, by Moliere. A new version by Justin Fleming. In The Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House. 28th August - 28th September.

Justin Fleming has created a new, Australian version of Moliere's LE MISANTHROPE. Lee Lewis has Directed it. This is the fourth Translation/Adadptation of a Moliere play that we have seen from Mr Fleming: TARTUFFE or THE HYPOCRITE, THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES and THE LITERATI - and there is another one coming next year, THE MISER, with John Bell. Lee Lewis has Directed three of these works. Peter Evans, Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare, will have Directed two of them.

Bell Shakespeare has embraced the work of that Frenchman, Moliere, as an alternate Classical palette to their principal writer, Englishman , Shakespeare, for their audiences (Racine, too). And, although Moliere achieved his fame in the French Court of Louis XIV, and his famous plays appeared, mostly, in the 1660's (LE MISANTHROPE in 1666) well after the English Court of Elizabeth and her heirs, James I (with the Elizabethan and Jacobean Playwrights), Charles I and the closed theatres of the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and his son, Richard, they, in their own way are as commanding in their intricacy and difficulties and in their political and social discourse and satire, as any in the Classic English repertoire, which may of course have taken influence, latterly, Moliere inspired, by the Writers of Charles II's Court, on his Restoration to the English throne, in 1660.

The Griffin Theatre, who prides its pursuit of New Australian work, has, under the Artistic Directorship of Lee Louis, counted the Adaptations of Justin Fleming as part of that enterprise.

THE MISANTHROPE was presented in 1666 and literary critics regard it as one of Moliere's most sophisticated works - if not his greatest. It concerns Alceste who hates false flattery and social niceties or compromise. Alceste insists on speaking the Truth and only the Truth. That causes Alceste much trouble, for the Truth can be confronting! As well, Alceste's Achilles heel is a devotion for a member of his society who is a notorious 'flirt' - a practice that Alceste is oblivious to. The Misanthrope, Alceste, is a figure that is difficult to discern, appreciate - is Alceste a hero or a fool? Should we admire Alceste for those strong standards of honesty? Or, should we regard Alceste as a fool for having such idealistic and unrealistic views about the regular conventions and behaviour of society? This play puzzled his audience, for here was a work that was not so obvious in its satirical targeting. Or, was it too, too, obvious?

Unequivocally, TARTUFFE (1664) and DON JUAN (1665) had been targeted at the hypocrisy of the Church and sexual exploitation. THE MISER (1668) would be targeted at Wealth, THE LITERATI (1672), at literary pretension and THE IMAGINARY INVALID*** (1673), at Doctors and medical practice (adapted by Hillary Bell as THE HYPODCHONDRIAC). THE MISANTHROPE has a more sombre tone, a more ambiguous targeting. For amusing, funny, as it is, it is also closer to the rub of the behaviour of most of us - the audience - in our negotiations with our contemporaneous worlds. It questions our practice of using 'little white lies' or 'big whopping ones' to facilitate felicitous relationships. WE ARE ITS TARGET?!!!! This play proved, relatively, unsuccessful in its premiere, and was quickly withdrawn. The world that greeted it was not absolutely sure whether they were the target of the wit and moralistic whip of the writer, and how dare he do so, if he was. It could be, was, is, quite confronting and disquietening.

Finding the 'tone' to deliver this play for our contemporary world maybe just as difficult, as it was in 1666, for it to be a universal success. Finding the right 'tone' for Australians in our present societal upheavals with the cracks of the Pillars of our Community - Church, Government, Banks, etc with revealing lies and deceitful practice - may be more than a trifle too awkward. Many a Banker (and other money men) and Lawyer were seated in the audience I was with! - and they may not like it. 'Is this entertainment?' they may well ask. We ordinary mortals, struggling with the nakedness, the openness that Social Media exposes us to and the invitation to participate in anonymous 'trolling' with fake 'news', uncensored, so easily available to our fingertips, Moliere's THE MISANTHROPE may be striking very near our 'bone' to have our appreciation. To be disturbed - is it 'stalked'? - at the Bell Shakespeare and Griffin, is that what you think is entertainment? At the Opera House, for goodness' sake?

Add the modernity of shifting the genders of most of the characters, as suggested by Ms Lewis to Mr Fleming, and another layer of confronting production concept may assert itself. Alceste, THE MISANTHROPE, or THE CANTANKEROUS LOVER (the full title of the play) has re-allocated gender and is played by Danielle Cormack; too, Philinite has become Phillipa, and is played by Rebecca Massey; while the female protagonist, Celimene is now Cymbeline, a preening male Rock Star, played by Ben Gerrard, and Arsinoe has changed sex and become Arsenio, played by Simon Burke. The play contains the frisson of heterosexual love, bi-sexual love and homosexual love without comment or excuse - it is the way of this world.

The world of this production is mostly played in the Rock Star's film studio, before, during and after the recording of his latest visual contribution to the Music World. Beginning back stage in the studio cluttered with the paraphernalia of props, furniture and costume, clearing for the rehearsal and recording, in front of a white rolled-out back-drop with the spectacular entrance of a huge white unicorn, all meticulously Designed by Dan Potra, and lit by Matthew Marshall, this adaptation of Moliere's play by Justin Fleming, is crackling with his usual wickedly witty, distinctive Australian eye (and ear) and clever flair for the difficult translating of the Alexandrine French poetry to capture with inventive rhythm and rhyme an Australian equivalent that communicates story, character and coruscating satiric comedy and observation. The original text and this new mode is not as laugh-out-loud as the plays we have seen and heard in the recent Moliere triumphs by Mr Fleming, but, is, rather seriously tempered for its societal critique, bristling and barbed, with satisfying accuracy and empathetic intention.

Moliere/Fleming is not for the lazy, or the members of the audience blighted with an attention deficit disorder, for the concoction of the language juggles are dense in their structure and are demanding of your full attention - if you are alert, the evening is extremely stimulating, witty and provocative, and makes you believe that you are indeed a clever fellow/person. The usual contrivance in play literature of the pursuit of sex and or love as the spine of the storytelling is there, conventionally necessary and entertaining but becomes subservient to the gradual revelation of the 'monstrous' but True societal observations and critiques.

That feeling of self-congratulation at one's cleverness is, of course, the result of the hard work of the actors in their intellectual perception and skill management of the material to seamlessly manipulate you into that zone of concentration that completely (mostly) absorbs you and gives you the clues to focus on the nunaced development of character and story to entertain and enlighten you - reflect a mirror image to you - for you can leave the Playhouse a properly provoked person, perhaps even, a changed person, at least a more observant human with sensitive attenae alert to the little and big falsities that one may practice in one's own life to facilitate an easier voyage through the 'storms' of just living in this complicated world.

Particularly immaculate in communicating Mr Fleming's world is the clever physical posturing of gesture, accompanied by a poignant, intelligent, use of the language to web us into the play, detailed with an active layer of inner monologue in listening and responding to the offers of the other characters that his Cymbeline meets, is the performance from Ben Gerrard. He captures the self-centred narcism of this preposterous invention as if it were a true part of himself - the controlled power that he physically achieves in the Choreography created for him by Kelley Abbey, and his internal ownership of the lyrics of the song (Mr Fleming) and Music Composition by Max Lambert and Roger Locke are riveting - for their beauty of action and for the observation of an ego running egregiously rampant.

The 'strained' scene of confrontation between Cymbeline and Arsenio, played flawlessly, and with subtle thought processes as sharp as a rapiers edge, intent in wounding deeply, but with the surface composure of the 'innocent' butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth 'dandyisms' of a super-precise intention by Simon Burke was the highlight of the night - interesting, for it is a scene usually played by two women - neither, of these men in this world show outward bruising, but the internal damage must be a spectacular bleed. Cymbeline and Arsenio do not much like each other.

Wonderful, too, is the work of Rebecca Massey as Phillipa, the devoted and querulously restless 'friend' of Alceste - one came to care for her choices in her life - there is great clarity in her character's intellectual and emotional life. While Hamish Michael, in two wonderfully conceived manifestations of poetical conceit and possible mediocrity in his carefully crafted characters Cleveland, and especially, Orton, gives a confident delight at every offer he contributes to this production. Catherine Davies (Eleanor) and Anthony Taufa (Angus), in smaller roles made supporting contributions, the former of a yearning heart, the latter, of an over-inflated mediocrity.

Danielle Cormack, handsome in her green velvet three piece suit, in high heeled boots and with a thick curly leonine blonded hair, topping off the 'look' (Brilliant Costume Design also by Dan Potra), and providing the opportunity of a characteristic physical gesture of finger-raking in moments of stress for Alceste, focuses with a gripped intellectual firmness the density of Alceste's fulminations. The character from the page to the stage requires a stamina of acuity and vocal skill of some dimension - unfortunately, Ms Cormack's voice was sounding worn and not always resonant in the tonal control needed to keep the audience completely intent on the 'arguments' of the protagonist - The Misanthrope. Ms Cormack seemed to tire, as well as the time passed. The play should cascade from the prominence of the power of the actor playing The Misanthrope, this was not always so, on the night I watched. There is promise of magnificence but it was, as yet, hampered by the wearying vocal sounds.

"Time. Time. Time", sings Cymbeline as the last utterance of this production of the play. Indeed, time speeds by and human behaviour stays (tragically) static in its responses for survival.

I had a treat with Ms Lewis' Direction of this very difficult play and I recommend it, with the caveat that you go 'game-ready'. 'Game-ready' and it will be worth it.

N.B. There is no Bio-graphical note concerning the original writer of this work: MOLIERE. Hmmm? The writer, the originator of all this art and craft, ignored.

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