Venue: York Theatre Royal
Director: Gemma Bodinetz
Running: 21st – 25th May
The York Theatre Royal’s latest touring visitor is none other than the rejuvenated and re-translated Misanthrope. One of French Classical Drama’s greatest, The Misanthrope tells the tale of the frustrated Alceste, played by Colin Tierney, who refuses to succumb to the social foppery of the court, and finds himself stranded between being true to his own beliefs, and pursuing the love of the court’s greatest hypocrite, Celimene.
From the very opening, the audience is plunged into a world where appearance is all, and disingenuousness rules. The sublime mockery of the court is refined to the very last detail: from the well-ruched curls of the out-sized wigs to the dainty, pastel-coloured shoes, every potential element of masculinity is replaced with the only most effeminate pieces of haute-couture. In fact, when it appears that the silken-coated Oronte is revered for his gallantry during the wars, it becomes very easy to see where the French’s reputation for military defeats started.
As a testament to the classical traditions of the era, the greater part of The Misanthrope’s action takes place in one room, throughout the space of one day, but the expert direction for Bodinetz prevents the setting from becoming stagnant and lethargic. Drawing inspiration from the genre created by King Louis XIV of France himself – le Comedie-Ballet (yes, just as ridiculous as it sounds, a comedy, with elements of dance) – Bodinetz expertly divides the scenes using small, almost interpretive, dances. Purely stylistically, the short musical and physical interludes give the more flamboyant characters of the play a chance to showcase the eccentricities that spoken word simply cannot encapsulate. Leander Deeny’s show-stopping performance as ‘le Petit Marquis’ Clitandre, in particular, utilises his performance in the instrumentals to create an unprecedented level of campness, hitherto never experienced.
The real beauty of this piece of theatre, however, does not lie in its realisation. As much as the set transforms the space into a magically decadent saloon, and the actors put a twenty-first century twist on their seventeenth century counterparts, the magic truly lies in Roger McGough’s wordplay. McGough (dubbed “#McGoughiere” on Twitter) has given the script a meticulously manicured make-over. From the outset, he allows the script to unashamedly acknowledge its roots in classical theatre. When Alceste announces that “there shall be no more alexandrines!”, McGough has made the decision to stray away from the traditionally couplet-ed original script, and allow Alceste to talk in prose. He even includes jestingly minute references to Corneille, and characters from Moliere’s other oeuvres, including the Tartuffe and the Hypochondriac. The wit and subtle humour allow Moliere’s original meaning to seep through, but keep the lexus contemporary, relatable and perfectly befitting of each wonderfully eccentric character.
In short, the play keeps so many of the original aims of classical French theatre in tact. The most important of which being that Moliere sought to write plays that were perpetually relatable to the audience, whatever their predispositions. The Misanthrope keeps this perennial relevance alive by providing a finale which condemns the behaviour of many, but does not quite provide any solution. The conflict between the need to conform to society or to stay true to your personal beliefs remains, to this day, relevant to every member of the audience, regardless of class, creed, or colour.