Wentworth's Danielle Cormack stars in this reimagined classic comedy
It’s a pretty bold move to stage a play entirely in rhyming verse. Most Sydneysiders today would sprint in the opposite direction of two and a half hours of rhymes. The idea of giving your night over to something highly stylised, rhythmic and so abstracted from realism is hugely daunting.
Justin Fleming is the one writer who has managed to get rhyming verse consistently on Australian mainstages for the last few years, convincing audiences it's worth their time. His adaptations of Molière’s comedies have been popular at Bell Shakespeare since School for Wives in 2012. The Misanthrope marks their fourth Fleming-Molière production. Next year they’ll stage their fifth, The Miser, starring the company’s namesake, John Bell.
Fleming’s adaptations meticulously retain Molière’s plotting but translate his French into a contemporary Australian vernacular, allowing directors a little more leeway to play around. There’s often great comic value in his anachronisms when the courtly world of Molière’s France comes up against straight-shooting Australianisms. Where else are you going to hear jokes about the Member for Warringah being a wanker in rhyming verse?
The Misanthrope is about an aristocratic man, Alceste, who rejects the social mores of his time and refuses to play along with its hypocrisies. He’s bluntly honest, a bit on the cranky side, and won’t pander to anybody or flatter those who don’t deserve it. His one weakness is the beautiful young woman that he loves. Unfortunately, her affections tend to wander.
Griffin Theatre Company's (a co-producer of this production) artistic director Lee Lewis’s big idea for this adaptation was to flip some gender roles and make Alceste a woman (played by the wonderful Danielle Cormack), in love with a beautiful younger man called Cymbeline (Ben Gerrard). There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, Lewis wanted to show a woman calling out society’s bullshit in 2018, as women are increasingly doing through movements like #MeToo. But Lewis also just thought we’d seen enough grumpy older men on stage, and Fleming felt that Molière, a provocateur and critic of his own society, would be very much on board with the flip.
It’s not a bad idea – and very much in the spirit of Molière – but there’s not enough here to make it genuinely radical or thrilling.
Lewis directed School for Wives and The Literati to strong acclaim in recent years, but her inventiveness, and the comedic talents of a superb cast, can’t drag Fleming’s latest adaptation across the line. In fact, her attempts to bring a contemporary eye to the material exposes everything flawed or flaccid in his writing. She’s opted to set the play behind the scenes in the music industry, but the updated setting constantly clashes with the content of the play.
It’s always an impressive feat to maintain rhyming schemes across a play of this length, but none of Fleming’s characters feel like they have an authentic voice. In fact, they all sound pretty much the same and none has a consistent vocabulary. He’s thrown in up-to-the-minute contemporary references for some of the cooler characters (one refers to “flossing”), but all their other turns of phrases belong to characters who are probably much older and clearly not part of the in-the-know music crowd we’re meant to be watching on stage. Fleming’s gags got quite a few laughs on opening night, but certainly not as much as the other Fleming-Molières we’ve seen in recent years.
There’s so much talent on and off stage to stop this from ever being too tough of a slog. Cormack has charisma to burn and keeps things on track even though her character hasn’t been written with a solid anchor. Even her musical taste (she shuns sappy lyrics but quotes ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘Close to You’ and ‘Losing My Mind’) makes little sense. Thankfully she wears a killer green velvet suit (Dan Potra’s costumes are wonderful) that speaks volumes of Alceste's judgement and style.
Ben Gerrard finds all the comedic potential in the vacuous Cymbeline while Rebecca Massey’s Philippa is a believable companion and friend for Alceste. Anthony Taufa and Hamish Michael are both appropriately foppish as Cymbeline’s other suitors, and Simon Burke and Catherine Davies both make the most of limited stage time.
But it can be difficult to invest in these characters given that their concerns are miles away from the concerns of its audience. The way they view reputational damage doesn’t hold much weight anymore.
In Molière’s world, being exposed as promiscuous could ruin a person. This is the root of significant stakes in his play, but here it’s been dropped into a very queer corner of the music industry in 2018. Are we really meant to believe that everybody in those circles legitimately fear their promiscuity being exposed? Are we really meant to believe that Alceste, a character painted as so strong, independent of thought, and completely sure of her convictions, will be so distraught to learn that the man she loves is interested in others? There’s too much here that doesn’t add up, and actually undermines any attempt to make the play more progressive. The script either needed a major rethink and restructure, or the production needed to not be set so firmly in a time and place at odds with the writing.
Justin Fleming is the only Australian playwright to have his work performed on a Bell Shakespeare mainstage in several years. He’s about to have five to his name. Surely it’s time to give somebody else a shot at reinvigorating and refreshing a classic?
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