Kate Mulvany is surrounded by charlatans. In foyers, at dinner parties – at home, where she’s often ensconced in research for a long-term project about Rasputin (who famously manipulated not only Russian royalty but an entire country). And this month, the second of two Moliere adaptations about charlatans: The Literati.
An adaptation of 17th century verse comedy Les Femmes Savantes ('The Learned Ladies'), The Literati comes in the wake of 2014’s Tartuffe – also adapted by writer Justin Fleming, directed by Peter Evans for Bell Shakespeare, and starring Mulvany.
Both plays are about a family falling under the spell of a fraud. In Tartuffe, it was a religious zealot. In The Literati, it’s a more pervasive Sydney breed: the cultural wanker.
“Tartuffe felt like it was set in another time and place,” says Mulvany, “because that sort of situation is not really common these days. But [The Literati] I find more relatable, because it’s about a household being infiltrated by a literary zealot and charlatan. And there are so many of those around Sydney. People who profess to know every element of literature, the ins and outs of Shakespeare, poetry… Those people who make you feel like the dumbest person in the room. I seem to meet them all the time. ‘Have you seen/have you read? Oh you haven’t? Oh my god.’ I’m a writer and I suffer [in those situations].”
Sitting at the same boardroom table that she sat at in the 2011 production of Julius Caesar (now installed in the actual boardroom of Bell Shakespeare), Mulvany has been talking about an upcoming adaptation of Richard III that she’s working on, and tweaks to her stage adaptation of best-selling novel Jasper Jones (about to have its third season, at Melbourne Theatre Company). And there’s that Rasputin play she’s had on the burner for a while – the one that was shortlisted for the 2012 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award.
And yet. “I think I’m still held back a little bit by my very ‘country-Western-Australia’ upbringing,” she says, explaining: “We didn’t have access to the ‘great literature’. It was before the Internet – we had the library. I didn’t study Shakespeare at school. And then I got to uni, and suddenly people were talking about ‘Proust’. The only place I’d heard of Proust was in Monty Python sketches. I guess I’m saying: I understand what it is to feel like the dumbest person in the room. People talk about literature and poetry and my brain feels like ‘I’m way behind this.’”
Adapted by Fleming with Sydney in mind, the play will open less than a week after the Sydney Writers Festival comes to a close – perhaps offering a cathartic chaser. Mulvany plays the household’s eldest daughter, Amanda, who undergoes a transformation from cerebral snob to someone you’d probably quite like to have around for dinner.
“Amanda really falls under the spell of Tristan – this charlatan poet who turns up at her house. He’s basically a god to her, through his words. She doesn’t believe in love unless it’s written in a poem. She’s very much a scientist – in terms of the science of literature, the worship of knowledge. Meanwhile, underneath her nose, her little sister is in love. Her journey – she sees that love is joyous and instinctive, not just words on a page.”