Thursday, September 27, 2012

The School for Wives by Molière, translated by Justin Fleming

Harriet Dyer, John Adam, Meyne Wyatt
The School for Wives by Molière, translated by Justin Fleming.  Bell Shakespeare directed by Lee Lewis.  Designer: Marg Horwell, Lighting Designer: Niklas Pajanti, Composer: Kelly Ryall, Movement Director: Penny Baron.  Canberra Theatre Playhouse, September 26 – October 6, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 26

Originality + is my assessment for the translation into modern Australian rhymed verse, a movable feast of a set design, the Parisien Charlston era setting, precision characterisation, and the especially clever use of pause and silent movement.

The + is for John Adam’s voice in the lead role of Arnolde, the man whose wealth leads him into territory rather akin to some more modern moguls or mining magnates: assuming he has the right (because he has the power) to arrange other people’s lives to suit his own requirements.  Except, of course, his expectations don’t match other people’s reality, so he comes seriously unstuck.

I’ll deal with Arnolde’s sticky end later; the + for Adam’s voice is because I was aware that he almost had to abandon opening night to the vicissitudes of a throat infection.  Anyone not in the know would never have known – a great performance which I can only hope he can maintain.

Originality abounded everywhere.  Pianist and percussionist Mark Jones had a ball (you’ll see what I mean when you see the play), tinkling the ivories like the accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin silent movie – always the right ironic mood, but never dominating the scene, even when he became a comic character in his own right.  If Jean-Baptiste Poquelin had had a Kelly Ryall and a Mark Jones available in 1643, he would have surely realised that comedy was his métier, would never have tried to act (in his stage name of Molière) the tragedies of writers like Corneille, would have employed them in his Illustre-Théâtre – and would never have gone to debtor’s prison. 

Poquelin would also have appreciated aluminium scaffolding on wheels to make frames, screens and even Agnes’s balcony.  It didn’t look 17th Century, or even 1920’s Paris (unless you wanted to see a reference to the iron-frame Eiffel Tower :-), but what a touring set, for France in his day or for playing Australia today.  This set took the old Peter Brooks’ Empty Space to its ultimate point – to create the scene  in the audience’s imagination, not by filling up the stage with predetermined pictures on immovable flats and blocks.

Then there was the rhyming, coming thick and fast, first and last.  Justin Fleming is a stickler for getting it right, working with all his might for rhyming couplets (AA/BB) when Arnolde is raving on, 1st and 4th – 2nd and 3rd line couplets (ABBA) when he is dealing with his young rival Horace, alternate rhymes (ABAB) for Agnes as she begins to realise her position, and back to rhyming couplets for the ensemble at the end.  Poquelin and Fleming could have been a great team – and still are.  The language itself becomes a character full of humour with which the actors play.

And this brings us to the style of acting, a combination I guess of the efforts of Lee Lewis, Penny Baron and Vocal Coach Anne McCrossin-Owen – and the skills of John Adam (Arnolde, originally Arnolphe); Harriet Dyer (Agnes – Agnès – all pure honesty and naiveté); Meyne Wyatt (the lovely Horace – rhymed on one occasion with “horses” for a great laugh); Arnolde’s commedia-like servants Georgette (Alexandra Aldrich) and Alan – Alain (Andrew Johnston); Jonathan Elsom (Notary and Henri); Mark Jones (Laurence, as well the musician); and Chrysalde – known in Australia as Chris – played magnificently by Damien Richardson.

Theatre of the era can be called “presentational” or maybe “representational”, as characters “present” themselves to the audience, sometimes directly and sometimes in the manner in which they speak and act towards other characters.  Later in history, Brecht would turn this into a theory of “alienation effect”, because stylisation sets the audience back from identifying with characters in a personal way, and allows them to see the characters for what they represent.  At one end of this scale is much of 19th Century English melodrama; at the other end I would put Shakespeare; while on the way between is commedia dell’arte. 

Molière sits towards the Shakespeare end, but – as I have mentioned – he was never a good tragic actor.  Shakespeare probably was.  So this production uses devices in mime, gestures, facial expression, expressive movement, silences, which we recognise from melodrama and commedia, but takes them at times into an expressionistic level, which makes the comedy into the kind of humour which tells – about character, social convention and ultimately about the human condition.  Arnolphe’s treatment of Agnès is far beyond acceptable norms, yet is understandable because he has human needs – for gratification and love.

The ending of this production raises for me what may be a difference between the 17th Century Jean-Baptiste Poquelin and the 21st Century Lee Lewis, perhaps between the centuries and perhaps between the sexes over the centuries.

Molière’s Chrysalde tells Arnolphe that he will never be able to marry, and Arnolphe leaves the stage transportè, et ne pouvant parler, just managing to huff and puff “Oh!”, implying that he will never change.  Lewis’s Arnolde seemed to me to leave rather sadly, leaving open the possibility that he might recognise his faults and mend his ways, or at least realise that he should change even if he can’t bring himself to do it.  Maybe our time is just a little softer in judgment of others than 350 years ago.

Whatever your interpretation, this is a great production.

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