Molière’s The Miser is a fun-filled romp into a dysfunctional family headed by the wrinkly, amoral and totally selfish old fogy, the miser himself, Harpagon. Molière’s play, written in 1688, centres around this miser and all his corrupt dealings with friends and his immediate family. The plot features twist and turns, slamming doors, disguised identities, double dealings and random visitors. It an array of malicious and overbearing characters who we love to dislike but then forgive all their foibles in the end – except perhaps the protagonist himself. The family unit is under scrutiny in this play; Molière delighted in calling out the pretension of the upper classes of his day and the way hypocrisy was readily accepted in many forms.
Molière was a keen observer of his society and he knew his target audience. He certainly hits his target audience in 2019 with Bell Shakespeare’s current production. It is packed with all the wonderful ingredients that makes an excellent French comedy of manners of the period. The success of the production is due to Justin Fleming’s fresh adaptation of the French script, Peter Evans’s clever direction and the production’s stunning look.
Harpagon not only wants to keep his 10,000 gold crowns for himself but also wishes to marry the woman of his son’s dreams, Mariane, much to the anger of his son Cléante who schemes desperately to avoid this from happening. Harpagon becomes carried away with his quest to look hip and youthful to win over the much younger Mariane. Harpagon also disapproves of his daughter Elise’s choice of marriage partner, Valère. La Fleche, a servant within Harpagon’s household, manages to find Harpagon’s stash of gold crowns and steals it and uses it as a bargaining tool to have Harpagon agree to his son’s marriage to Mariane. To conclude all the conflict and shenanigans, it is revealed that Valère, Mariane and Signor Anselm (a elderly gent roaming about the household) are all of noble stock and are all related. This, in the end, joins those in love to their rightful partners and leaves Harpagon alone to idolise his golden stash.
This is an excellent production and all the more worth watching to see John Bell encapsulate the lowly character of Harpagon so effortlessly. Bell has not been back to perform with the company he founded since 2015 and this play offers him the chance to display what has made him so revered as an actor. His comedic gestures posturing as a middle-aged father posing as a twenty-something playboy who sports a golden sequinned sport jacket and the tightest black jeans, is hilarious. Bell delivers the rhyming couplets with ease and conveys the unappealing character of Harpagon with a devilish smile and praying mantis-type bodily movements. Bell does not stomp around being the stereotypical villain but refreshingly adds an almost grandpa persona to Harpagon, almost inviting us to sympathise with him at times. We certainly laugh at him but can’t bring ourselves to ever forgive him. He is cruel to his son Cléante (Damien Strouthos) and dogged with everyone else.
Justin Fleming’s adaptation of this play helps us engage afresh with this classic work. Fleming writes most of the play in rhyming couplets, adhering to the original French structure. He employs some very appropriate aussie vernacular to enhance some of the witty repartee between the characters. This will make the play so accessible to younger audiences as it tours around the country – the company successfully fulfilling its remit to bring the classics to school-aged kids.
Director, Peter Evans, uses the classic array of doors to enhance the many comings and goings of the households. The doors are housed within a tall golden cyclorama nodding to Harpagon’s abundant wealth. The only set piece on stage being purple chaise-lounge that is fingered, sat on, jumped on and patted by most of the characters at some stage during their performance. Evan’s make great use of this set piece and the colour choice by designer Anna Tregloan is fabulous. And so are her costumes! The range of colour and vibrancy is outstanding. Molière’s stock characters are well-defined by their garments but they are also contemporary and sassy.
The whole ensemble works brilliantly together. The energy is right and the actors display strong vocal command. Elizabeth Nabben is a standout; she is like a Pierrot doll on Xanax, wobbling around the stage, being pushed and pulled as the woman who is the object of so many people’s desire. It was a great decision by Evans to cast Jessica Tovey as the servant Valère (normally a male character) so as to build into the play a same-sex relationship. Jessica Tovey and Harriet Gordon-Anderson, who plays her lover Elise, are a sensual and happy couple.
Max Lyandvert’s music and sound composition add to the contemporary tone of this excellent production. It is so much fun to see the theatrical style of French comedy of manners being brought to life so creatively.