Sunday, 3 January 1999
The Misanthrope, MTC, Jan 2, 1999
By Moliere, MTC
At Fairfax Studio, Jan until February 13, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
"The Function of comedy is to correct the vices of mankind," said Moliere, the 17th century French satirist: a noble sentiment however unlikely.
Simon Phillips' production of The Misanthrope may not correct anybody's vices, but it is intelligent, classy, cunning and uses a witty modernised translation by English playwright, Martin Crimp.
The text is pacey, provocative, hilarious and peppered with contemporary references to post-modernism, feminism, technology and the ridiculously pretentious language of the intellectual arts world.
There are teasing references to the 17th century throughout and the masquerade ball is a feast of baroque brocade. If Crimp takes liberties, it is in order to be true to the original intention of Moliere, a man of the theatre who would, no doubt, approve.
The Misanthrope, written in 1666, was one of Moliere's acerbic looks at the superficiality of Baroque Parisian society. He was in the invidious and confusing position of becoming the darling of the court a few years after a scandal surrounding three of his plays caused him to be accused of obscenity and atheism.
Alceste, a playwright (Martin Jacobs) renowned for his unexpurgated comments on society and other artists, represents Moliere in the play. His is the only name retained from the original play.
He is accompanied by his temperate friend, John (Humphrey Bower), and is enamoured of a narcissistic, juvenile actress (Sophie Heathcote) who surrounds herself with admirers: her agent (John Stanton), a critic (Kim Gyngell), a juvenile male lead (Richard Grieve), a journalist (Pamela Rabe) and her acting teacher. (Catherine Wilkin).
Finally, Alceste's venomous attacks and brutal criticisms, in comparison to the dissembling and back-stabbing of his compatriots, is seen clearly as simple, even naive, honesty
This superb cast addresses the audience, preens, taunts and poses to evocative musical soundcape (Ian McDonald) and on a vivid gold set(Shaun Gurton) which replicates a gaudy suite at the Sheraton.
Jacobs seethes and spits as Alceste, cutting a swathe through his superficial environment. Gyngell's critic perfectly blends the fawning and supercilious, Wilkin is hilariously idiosyncratic as the faded acting mentor and Rabe maintains a still dignity as Ellen.
Phillips, the next Artistic Director of the MTC, is known for his vigorous and innovative treatment of classic both comic and tragic. His Julius Casesar, pared down to ninety minutes, was a gift. The Misanthrope is equally provocative and entertaining.