In 1672, Les Femmes Savantes (‘The Learned Ladies’) by French playwright Molière was performed on stage in Paris for the first time. It’s a satirical piece about academic and literary pretentiousness – specifically with educated women in its purview, as the title suggests – and is the latest work from Molière’s repertoire to be rendered for 21st century audiences by Australian playwright, Justin Fleming (Fleming was behind the modern interpretation of Tartuffe, produced by Bell Shakespeare, met with great acclaim following its 2014 premiere).
Aptly titled The Literati, Fleming has worked to ensure his contemporary adaptation of Les Femmes Savantes is, in his own words, “a piss-take on pretentious literary conceit”. And while in the piece, it’s gushing and arguably sycophantic women who remain the vehicle for mocking literary pretentiousness, it’s clear Fleming’s version is a send-up of elitist behaviour in which we see both of the sexes engaged. While Molière’s original text may have served to exhibit his disdain for ‘overeducated women’, The Literati pokes as much (or more) fun at the laughably narcissistic and obnoxious poet, Tristan Tosser (Gareth Davies) as it does the ladies who uncritically accept every word as evidence of his literary genius.
A co-production between Bell Shakespeare and Griffin Theatre Company, The Literati arrived this week at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres. It tells the tale of Juliet (Miranda Tapsell), who has fallen in love with Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould). The marriage has the approval of Juliet’s father, Christopher (also played by Oxenbould), but not her mother, Philomena (Caroline Brazier), who instead plans for Juliet to wed her literary idol, Tosser. The idea of a union between Juliet and Clinton also exasperates her bookish older sister, Amanda (Kate Mulvany), who tries to convince Juliet to instead pursue intellectual endeavours. But Amanda was also once the object of Clinton’s affections, and she’s convinced he remains in love with her, despite his protestations to the contrary.
It’s at the Tuesday Book Club meeting when Philomena reveals to Juliet her plans for her daughter to wed Tosser and, of course, Juliet is unenthused by the idea and remains determined to marry Clinton. Towards the end of the book club meeting, a visiting scholar highly respected by the entire family, Vadius (played also by Brazier), arrives and shares her own view of Tosser – that he’s a fraud with no genuine prowess, merely plagiarising the work of genuinely gifted authors. Unsurprisingly, Tosser is incensed by Vadius’ accusations, and both Amanda and Philomena are sceptical about the notion that their esteemed poet is anything other than tremendously talented. What will it take to convince them of the accuracy of Vadius’ allegations and for Philomena to ultimately accede to the idea of a wedding between Juliet and Clinton?
While Fleming has reimagined Les Femmes Savantes for today’s theatregoers, some of the aspects of the story remain a reflection of the society of Molière’s day. Chiefly, the concept of a young girl adhering to a parent’s wishes for an arranged marriage squarely puts the piece in its period context. But the whole story is silly, and unashamedly so, making it easy to overlook those aspects and focus on the central messages that do provide accurate commentary on the world of today.
Overall, Fleming has crafted a funny script, with moments of really exuberant laughter particularly in the Tuesday Book Club scene as Tosser presents his latest work to the group (admittedly, the extent of that laugher also owes considerably to the truly excellent performances of the players). Like Molière, Fleming has used rhyming couplets, though he’s changed them up with rhymes on alternate lines and then rhymes on the first and fourth lines, and then second and third lines – a pattern he first experimented with in modernising Tartuffe. Every line might not be spun gold, but there’s certainly enough in there that allows the two-and-a-half-hour show to roll along at a pace that ensures audience engagement.
Director Lee Lewis (artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company) has assembled a cast for The Literati that is sincerely first-class. Mulvany is the standout as Amanda, the erudite sister, commanding the greatest of laughs sometimes merely through facial expressions or a walk across the stage. Her physicality in this role is every bit as impressive as her line delivery. In her performance, she evokes a strong sense of having no shame in the manner in which she moves and behaves, reinforcing the extent of her character’s gullibility. Amanda’s attempts to be seen as a sensual being offer some of the most entertaining moments of the performance.
Brazier is faultless taking on dual duties as Philomena and Vadius. Her gorgeous voice lends such authority to her portrayal of Vadius, making it easy for us to see her as a revered academic. Similarly, her ability to command attention makes it clear as day why she’s the true master of the house and why dissenting from her wishes is actually challenging for her meek husband, Christopher.
Oxenbould impresses as both Christopher and Clinton, particularly in a second act scene in which he’s tasked with depicting a conversation between each of his characters. It’s most effectively done. And Tapsell is wonderful in her portrayal of the sweet and charming Juliet, nicely contrasting that portrayal with her characterisation of the sharp-tongued, tell it like it is housemaid, Martina, who appears as a means of demonstrating the value of instinct and observation – smarts that cannot be learned from books.
Finally, Davies is terrific as Tosser, the phony poet. He’s outstanding in bringing to life a man who one moment is so entranced by what he perceives as his literary genius, and the next so totally vacuous and out of sync with the goings on around him. His and Mulvany’s are performances likely to give you a few laughs well after leaving the theatre.
The Literati is a raucous night of fun at the theatre. It sets out to be silly and sassy, and ends up delivering both in spades.