This review of The Misanthrope first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.
It was most enjoyable to return to CoPs and find the company on such good form. And they had to be because the choice of The Misanthrope by Molière makes no concessions and there is little in the way of action on which to pin your characterisation. Molière, who has been dubbed the French Shakespeare, like Shakespeare himself wrote in verse. Unlike the classical plays of the time (the play premiered in 1666) such as those of Racine, his works were more of a social critique concerned with lampooning the falsehoods and insincerities of the court of Louis XIV and holding them up to laughter and ridicule. As such the dialogue is of the essence and represents quite a challenge for the cast to create believable characters. Happily they were more than equal to the occasion.
The play presents Alceste, a poet of note, as the chief protagonist. He cannot stand the attitude of the court who refuse to acknowledge reality and will applaud and support outrageous behaviour in others.
This is pointed up by McGough, whose brilliant translation has all the characters, as in the original, speaking in verse, other than Alceste. After initially following the trend of the others he decides to speak only in prose (except when inadvertently he forgets). His problem, however, is that he is in love with Célimène, a compulsive flirt who clearly exemplifies everything that he detests. His confusion and uncertainty are well conveyed by Liam Evans.
Célimène is cleverly acted by Ashleigh Harper, relishing her notoriety and attraction to the men until her comeuppance at the end. But she is not alone as Molière gives all the actors a chance in the spotlight and they take their opportunities brilliantly. Paul Morton, as director, does not let the pace slacken and the sparks fly between the actors as they score points off each other.
Célimène clashes with Arsinoé (Helen Budd), who is described as a prude and religious nonentity, when she tries to run down Célimène by recounting what others (not she, of course) are saying behind her back and Célimène then gives as good as she got. Arsinoé, however, is not beyond making a pitch for Alceste and how he escapes her wandering hands is beautifully done.
Oronte (Alex Brace), a would-be poet who is also in love with Célimène, has his moment when he wishes to obtain Alceste’s approval of his sonnet. His reluctance to read it initially is delightfully done, as well as Alceste’s attempt to let him down gently. When finally he tells Oronte that it is rubbish, it introduces another criticism by Molière of the legal practices of the time: Oronte brings an action in the courts against Alceste, which ultimately Alceste loses, because he does not have the influence or funds to be able to win the case. Typically, he refuses to appeal.
Throughout, Alceste’s friend Philinte (Gavin Palmer) is unsuccessfully attempting to persuade him into conformity, but then he lapses into the same behaviour as the others when he praises Oronte’s sonnet. He can see what Alceste is trying to achieve but his advice that he should live and let live is rejected.
In the end, however, he wins the heart of Célimène’s cousin Eliante (Hannah Leonard), who has her own time centre stage when she movingly tries to reconcile the lovers. However, Alceste rejects both Célimène and the world and departs through the audience to become a hermit. In the original, though not so clear this week, Philinte and Eliante leave to follow him, so perhaps it is not all finished.
Célimène is also encouraging two other would-be suitors: Clitandre (Stuart Handysides) and Acaste (Mark James), who are presented as an amusing double act. Their reading of letters sent to them by Célimène listing the failings of all those she has been encouraging practically brings down the house. Then there is Dubois, Alceste’s manservant (Andy Howell), who believes he should be speaking in verse like all the others but consistently cannot do it. It is entirely in keeping with his character that he should come on to the stage at the end with a broom to sweep it and then turn out the lights.
So everyone contributed to a very enjoyable evening. And it did not matter that for some reason the play had been set in Paris in 1982. The significance of the date was not explained, nor why the cast were dressed as though they had come from the Chelsea Arts Ball. There is, of course, no reason why the play should not be played in more modern times. After all, what Molière was trying to convey is as relevant today as it was in his time. Indeed, there have been numerous occasions when Shakespeare has been played in modern dress: most recently the RSC have set Love’s Labour’s Lost and Measure for Measure most successfully in the period immediately post the First World War. However, the text made frequent references to the Court and the King, which in the 20th century does not make much sense, so it would perhaps have played better in the costumes of the 17th century. The set was even labelled as The Hall of Mirrors and while this was intended to be the name of a discothèque it also had a relevance to Versailles. Nevertheless it did give the cast ample opportunity to preen themselves before the many mirrors which hung along the sides of the stage. So, well done CoPs.
Review by Brian Thompson. Photographs by Steve Beeston.