The Kaos Moll Flanders
Adapted by Xavier Leret from the novel by Daniel Defoe
Gala Theatre, Durham, and touring
There is no doubt that Xavier Leret's sometimes accurate, sometimes free adaptation is very definitely The Kaos Moll Flanders rather than Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. The style is typically Kaos: very physical, broad - indeed bawdy: nay, filthy! - comedy, close contact with the audience, a capella singing, much cross-dressing, a cleverly designed set with enough entrances and exits to out-Feydeau Feydeau three times over with some to spare, and faithfulness to the spirit rather than the letter of the book.
Leret decided that Moll should be played by a man, Kaos regular Ralf Higgins. Knowing this before seeing the show, I thought it perverse, something done for the sake of being different, but in his programme notes Leret explains his thinking. Like all early novels, Moll Flanders is told in the first person. The novel was a new form (Moll Flanders was written in 1722) and the concept of a third person narrative had not yet taken hold so here was a man writing in the guise of a woman, and therefore Leret decided to merge the two. He takes the first paragraph of the novel and, with the necessary changes, puts it into the mouth of Defore himself as he talks to the audience. He then slips back into Moll's own narrative and, in front of the audience, Defoe is transformed into his leading lady.
It's a very theatrical device (with - appropriately, given the Kaos approach - echoes of the pantomime transformation scene), which Leret revives from time to time by having Defoe/Moll ushering others off the stage with comments like "Yes, very good acting. Now get off the stage." Not quite Brechtian alienation but serving a not-dissimilar purpose!
It is a great romp, very well performed by the cast of five (Higgins, Jack Corcoran, Jane Hartley, Richard Nutter and Sarah Thom) playing 25 characters between them, regardless of sex. Comedy dominates, but there were one or two remarkable moments when our emotions were wrenched the other way and there was a tremendous sense of (somewhat surprised) pathos.
When I was a boy, in those innocent days before Lady Chatterley came to public prominence, among my contemporaries Moll Flanders was whispered of as being a "dirty book", and certainly much is made of sex in this production (rather more than in the novel, actually, which I remember, as a lad, finding a little disappointing in that regard). But, important though sex may be, what comes across most strongly is the vital importance of money: it is money and the security it provides which drives Moll, not sex. And so it is in the play: for all its sometimes very explicit bawdiness it is a very moral piece.
The big disappointment of the night was not the production but the audience. Those who were there thoroughly enjoyed it and were vocal in expressing that enjoyment: such a pity that there were so few of them. One hopes the last night will be better attended, otherwise the theatregoers of Durham will miss a real treat.
After Durham, the production goes on to Alnwick, Bracknell and Newport. We understand that a spring tour is planned.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan