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L'École des Femmes

Molière
Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe
Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe
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Suzanne Aubert and Claude Duparfait Credit: Elizabeth Carecchio
Laurent Caron, Claude Duparfait and Ana Rodriguez Credit: Simon Gosselin
Glenn Marausse and Claude Duparfait Credit: Simon Gosselin

One of the hidden benefits of the coronavirus lockdown has been an opportunity to enjoy choice theatrical performances from around the world.

Pleasingly, this 2018 production directed by Stefan Braunschweig from Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris comes complete with English subtitles, albeit lacking the poetry of the original.

Molière’s classic, usually translated as The School for Wives, is a hilarious romp at the best of times but, rather than setting it in its original period, the director has brought events forward to the present day.

This becomes apparent from an opening scene in which two men chat from adjoining exercise bikes in an upmarket gym, as part of a simple staging which otherwise utilises little more in the way of props than a bed and a highly effective, gigantic black and white video screen.

From the opening, we find ourselves in familiar territory for this playwright, as Claude Duparfait‘s middle-aged Arnolphe aka M. de la Souche, legendary for cuckolding his fellow man, announces plans to get married.

In doing so, he unwisely brushes off warnings from his friend, Assane Timbo playing Chrysalde, that in their promiscuous society he should take care as the tables can so easily be turned. However, the prospective groom has a foolproof plan, built around the belief that the safest bride is a fool.

The proud protagonist should have listened before pursuing his ward, sweet, innocent Agnès, although, in our hero’s eyes, the convent-educated 17-year-old fits the bill because he believes that she isn’t bright enough to deceive any man in love.

The initial unveiling of Lolita-like Agnès, played by Suzanne Aubert, ought to have been enough to inform any viewer that this assumption is likely to be misguided.

The alarm bells should certainly have started ringing on the arrival of Horace, a handsome young family friend portrayed by Glenn Marausse.

Thereafter, a game of cat and mouse ensues during which Arnolphe enlists the assistance of a pairing of slapstick servants played by Ana Rodriguez and Laurent Caron with predictable consequences.

In a production graced by superb acting, the central scene between the aspiring groom and his ward is a classic, thanks to a comic misunderstanding between the twitchy, increasingly manic old man and the girl whose purity and lust for life cannot be doubted.

Pride coming before a fall for those who favour jealousy over humility, a performance that stretches to just under two hours builds towards an inevitable comic climax that, as it should be, proves to be inventive, amusing and deeply satisfying.

One reason for this revival must surely have been the chance to appreciate a sententious speech in which Arnolphe, utilising ten commandments of misogyny, righteously delineates the marital relationship in terms that might even have embarrassed Petruchio and, in today’s more liberated times, could engender Parisian riots, were the irony not so marked.

Beyond the historical gender politics, L'École des Femmes is a fine piece of comedy that richly deserves this witty and illuminating revival from a fine cast in the hands of a director who expertly combines the ancient with the modern.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher