Molière’s comedy of manners The Misanthrope was first performed in Paris in 1666 and written as a cutting critique on the hypocrisies of French aristocratic society. Award-winning playwright Justin Fleming, who previously adapted Molière’s Tartuffe, The School for Wives and The Literati, has given The Misanthrope a 21st century makeover for a Bell Shakespeare and Griffin Theatre Company co-production, directed by Lee Lewis.
In Lewis’ and Fleming’s updated take on The Misanthrope, the misanthrope, Alceste, is now a woman (Danielle Cormack) and events unfold behind the scenes on a music video shoot. Alceste detests contemporary social conventions, including false flattery and superficiality. Her abjuration of social niceties is demonstrated early on when Orton (Hamish Michael) seeks to earn her respect with his songwriting skills and she, in giving candid feedback, delivers searing criticism of his lyrics.
Alceste’s love interest is the youthful Cymbeline (Ben Gerrard), a pretty popstar with a well-defined physique who has a reputation for flirtatiousness and promiscuity. Despite Alceste’s frank accusations that Cymbeline is false, he assures her she’s the only person in whom he has a romantic interest. But after talebearers Angus (Anthony Taufa) and Cleveland (also Hamish Michael) arrive on the scene, events advance to the ultimate revelation that Cymbeline is indeed disingenuous, having made romantic declarations to a number of parties. Despite his sizable indiscretions, Alceste is prepared to give the popstar one last chance and gives him a clear ultimatum.
Questions posed by Molière’s text include whether Alceste is best described as a pessimist or is she, in fact, an idealist. Are her expectations of humanity too lofty? Or, perhaps, is she shining a light on society, a clarion call to take a look at ourselves and the falsities we tolerate? Does Alceste highlight that the only way to refuse to accede to certain behaviours and conventions is to physically remove oneself from society altogether?
The core themes are interesting and relevant, but not delivered with sterling clarity in this production. While Fleming has skilfully updated Molière’s play, using a varied rhyming scheme to pay homage to the manner in which the original work was constructed, it doesn’t translate as a convincing 21stcentury portrait. The music video setting, while a wise decision in theory (what better backdrop for a tale of artifice?) doesn’t marry entirely successfully with the skeleton of Molière’s narrative that has been preserved. There are moments that work wonderfully, but others don’t really wash in a contemporary climate, and there’s even arguably too little going on in the story for a two-hour and 30-minute production.
An undeniable strength of this production, however, is its cast. Cormack lends tenacity and righteousness to her portrayal of Alceste; Gerrard’s characterisation of Cymberline epitomises the perception of the narcissistic, contrived pop singer (and is the source of some very entertaining comical moments, riding a unicorn while “filming” the music video); Michael is suitably ridiculous as the questionably talented Orton; and Rebecca Massey is an asset as Alceste’s friend and lawyer, Philippa. Taufa, Simon Burke and Catherine Davies similarly are all strong players in this production.
Dan Potra has designed an attractive production, with a set that nicely mirrors the progression of the narrative – at the beginning of the performance, the stage is tightly packed with “stuff” everywhere, but by the end of the night, as the layers peel away, much like this polite society, the stage is left with virtually nothing. Max Lambert’s and Roger Lock’s compositions (particularly the dance-pop track for Cymberline’s music video) add meaningfully to the production.
Despite its flaws, this revamped iteration of The Misanthrope entertains, showcases a fine cast led by the excellent Cormack, and shows us that, more than 350 years after it was written, hypocrisy and niceties, truth and deception, are still alive and well.
THE MISANTHROPE – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Dates: Playing now until 28 September, 2018
Tickets: bellshakespeare.com.au or by phone on 1300 305 730