The Oxford Playhouse’s new production of The Misanthrope cuts to the very heart of Molière’s masterpiece, a raucous satire of the 17th-century French Salon. Notwithstanding some masterful adjustments to script, the English Touring Theatre stay true to the essence of Molière’s work and rejoices in his buffoonery, burning desire to entertain, and mockery of the foppish affectation that so characterised the ancien régime. Rather than adapting the play to modernity, the company faithfully relies on the genius and force of Molière’s work and lets the satire of human folly speak for itself.
Molière’s spokesperson for his attack is our misanthropic protagonist Alceste (Colin Tierney), an enemy to society. Alceste maintains that affectation is foolish and instead heralds honesty as desirous. Cue bedlam as he proceeds to assassinate the gallery of caricatures that come before him, a task handled with suitable understatement and razor sharp timing. Oronte (Daniel Goode) arrives first, rejoicing in his own majesty; he is the personification of false politeness—until Alceste’s treatment of his ghastly rendition of a sonnet.
Roger McGough has chosen to transform the Alexandrine rhyming couplets of Molière’s French into English free verse, thus maintaining rhyme yet doing away with formal structure. Yet more radical still, in true misanthropic style, Alceste rejects even this fancy fare as unnecessary and verbose, choosing instead to speak prose. A new comedy valve is introduced as the script itself becomes part of the play.
Rhyme, or indeed the lack of it, becomes something of a leitmotif. Alceste’s lapses in concentration and resulting accidental rhymes bring applause from the audience and apologies from the actor. Meanwhile, the servant Dubois’ (Neil Caple) overarching wish to rhyme each of his couplets produces lines that lack any grace or suitability. His thick Liverpudlian accent does little to mask his linguistic inadequacy. His failure is marvellously overshadowed by the master of words herself. Celimene’s (Zara Tempest-Walters) rhymes are delivered with the confidence and elegance of a 17th-century salon queen, and she performs damning caricatures with mischievous arrogance.
Her fellow salon gossips, Clitandre (Leander Deeny) and Acaste (George Potts), have an infectious chemistry that extends its pink gloved hand to the audience. In true diva form, Doraminte sways his hips provocatively, flattering anyone who will listen to his shrill voice.
We are treated to a spectacle on every level. The actors’ movement is elegant throughout the performance, and we are provided with welcome relief from the barrage of wordplay as choreographed sequences of dance are stylishly introduced in between the scenes. The set and costumes are delightfully decadent; feathered dresses leave their mark on gold encrusted furniture. As we reach the end, the profligate emerald salon transforms into a crimson chamber. The comedy evaporates, and the somewhat tragic ending is delicately handled.
The production is a triumph. We are treated to a skilful portrayal of the Sun King’s Paris richly furnished with a catalogue of aristocratic characters. Thanks to Roger McGough’s subtle script and Gemma Bodinetz’s excellent direction, the comedy, wit and intrigue retain all their 17th-century fervour.
PHOTO / Robert Day