Justin Fleming’s latest Molière adaptation (following his adaptations of the French satirist’s Tartuffe and The School for Wives, both for Bell Shakespeare) turns the 17th century farce Les Femmes Savantes (‘The Learned Ladies’) into a contemporary skewering of literary pretensions that is taking a dig at Sydney’s cultural elite.
But only sort of. The rhyming couplets and the references to Horace et al won’t exclude anyone from enjoying this play – but they certainly make it more enjoyable for a well-read audience member. Ironically, for a play that purports to skewer culture elites, The Literati often feels somewhat rarefied.
Fleming’s transposition pitches its tent in a middle class family where little seems to happen besides books, golf, wine and bad investments – and worrying whether daughters Juliet and Amanda will make good marriages. Juliet is ready to marry her beau Clinton (a former admirer of Amanda’s), but her mum wants Juliet to marry her literary crush du jour, Tristan Tosser. Juliet’s sister Amanda thinks love and marriage is bunkum. Her father, who has a more romantic disposition, backs Clinton to marry his daughter – putting him at war with his wife.
It’s no mean feat to adapt Moliere in not just contemporary language but also mixed rhyming schemes, and the lingual acrobatics of Fleming’s script are often clever and funny.
But it’s the performances in this production, directed by Griffin Theatre Company AD Lee Lewis, that really make it engrossing; they’re not just comedically en pointe, they also often manage to make the verbal gymnastics seem natural.
Leading the pack is actress Kate Mulvany (who played the maid Dorine in the 2014 production of Tartuffe), whose Amanda is the centre of the play. The actress plays this literary zealot as more than merely a narcissistic and uptight prig: her movements betray self-doubt and an inner weirdo busting to get out. Amanda is barely keeping her shit together – and there’s a deliciously off-the-wall edge to Mulvany’s performance, coupled with impeccable comic timing. You feel like you’re watching a master at work.
Caroline Brazier and Jamie Oxenbould have fun with their rapid character changes: in her case, between an increasingly dishevelled and discombobulated Philomena and American academic and poet Vadius; in his, between the two romantics in the piece – Juliet’s boyfriend Clinton and father Christopher. A scene in which he volleys back and forth between the two, in conversation, is exhilarating.
Gareth Davies makes use of his hair, his pout, and his gift for affectation to play Tristan Tosser, the charlatan poet in the house, who oozes into the room, hips first. You’re never sure, until the final stretch, whether this Tristan believes his own bullshit.
Miranda Tapsell is perfectly cast as the only unpretentious and clear-sighted characters: sunshiny Juliet (whose carefree affect betrays a fairly steely disposition and grounded sense of self) and the plain-speaking maid Martina, who might just be wiser than the lot of them.
These performers manage to hold your attention even when scenes feel overlong (as for example in a scene where Philomena and Christopher argue at length about her reasons for firing Martina). Not much actually happens in The Literati, and when the wordplay feels more like filler than particularly clever or revealing, this play falls a bit flat.
That said, it is largely enjoyable for 150 minutes – again, no mean feat.
ICYMI: independent theatre – and the arts generally – isn’t having a great time right now. The 2015 budget, with its reduction of Australia Council’s funding for the medium and small performing arts company sector, hit Griffin Theatre Company (one of the two companies presenting this production of The Literati) to the tune of 30 per cent of its annual budget.
Bell Shakespeare, the other company behind this production, were more fortunate: as one of 28 ‘major performing arts companies’, they have been quarantined from arts funding cuts in the 2015 and 2016 budgets.
So there’s something big hearted – as well as nicely balanced – in this partnership. Besides the obvious fact that The Literati brings together a classic (Bell’s purview) with new writing (Griffin’s), the production represents a major and an independent banding together to share resources for a work that brings each a different kind of audience. It gives the SBW Stables stage (Griffin’s home) the rare luxury of a revolving set piece (bling!) and gives Bell Shakespeare a smaller (less risky) stage outside of Sydney Opera House to premiere a new work (always risky).
It’s impossible not to wish them both well in this enterprise, which makes the best of tough times and provides a much needed laugh.
Read our interview with Kate Mulvany.