The Misanthrope

Roger McGough after Molière
English Touring Theatre and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
York Theatre Royal

The Misanthrope cast, including Colin Tierney as Alceste Credit: Robert Day
Zara Tempest-Walters and George Potts in The Misanthrope Credit: Robert Day
Leander Deeny, George Potts and Zara Tempest-Walters in The Misanthrope Credit: Robert Day

This production marks the third and final collaboration between Mersey poet Roger McGough, director Gemma Bodinetz, and what might be termed their sleeping partner Molière. One of the French playwright’s most famous plays, The Misanthrope has had innumerable modern translations and adaptations, but this is surely one of the most knock-about and fun.

Familiar to many for their populist blend of humour and irreverence, McGough’s tongue-in-cheek rhymes are well suited to the frippery and indolence of the French court targeted by Molière’s play. An early master-stroke comes in having Alceste (Colin Tierney), the titular misanthrope who scorns the two-facedness he sees around him, decide to speak only in non-rhyming prose. This decision appals his close friend Philinte (Simon Coates), and Alceste’s straight-talking soon lands him in trouble with supreme fop and would-be sonneteer Oronte (Daniel Goode).

Alceste’s Achilles heel is that he is unavoidably drawn to Célimène (Zara Tempest-Walters), who is the embodiment of the society hypocrisy which he otherwise abhors. It must be love—or something like it—and throughout the play Alceste is motivated by an urge to have her declare him the only man she wants.

The set-up is further populated by another pair of Court fops, Acaste (George Potts) and Clitandre (Leander Deeny), who are also vying for Célimène’s affections and attentions. There is also her kind-hearted cousin Eliante (Alison Pargeter), the catty, besotted society widow Arsinoé (Harvey Virdi), and Alceste’s valet Dubois (Neil Caple).

The adaptation, unlike Crimp’s recently-revived and much harder-nosed 1996 version, retains the 17th-century setting, though some of the more tired comic business derives from authorial and directorial embellishments (Caple’s Dubois, in particular, gets lumbered with the most thankless visual gags and verbal tics).

Elsewhere, though, McGough’s cross-lingual punnery evinces both laughs and (I think appreciative) groans. His is a sprightly comic doggerel which keeps the momentum driving onwards, the body of the line often immaterial and serving only as a springboard towards another groaningly satisfying rhyme. Scattergun references pepper the script and add to the sense of gentle irreverence and fun. So we have mentions of Tartuffe and The Hypochondriac, quotations of some of the most famous of Shakespeare’s lines, and slightly more obscure (though still fairly heavily labelled) nods to existentialist writers of much more recent times.

Alceste’s high-minded insistence on not speaking in verse means that on the occasions he accidentally slips into the (highly contagious) rhyme schemes of the evening, he winces and corrects himself. Colin Tierney unquestionably provides many of the high points of the production, and his sonorous voice and prim, principled, but self-regarding air as Alceste paint a detailed, likeable—but rightly not loveable—picture of Molière’s misanthrope.

The cast as a whole is strong, though some are given more rewarding tasks than others. Somewhere around the half-way point things seem to lose their way—arguably whenever Alceste is not present—but in any case, the physicalities and visual gags become more coarse, the acting more nudge-nudge than wink-wink.

Deeny and Goode manage for the most part to stay on the right side of overwhelming camp, but when they are left to their own devices on stage, Bodinetz seems to have felt the need to overload the already packed verbal comedy with rather slipshod, undiscriminating visual business. The ladies, too, cope better in company, and though Tempest-Walters is energetic when delivering a tirade against her (absent) courters, she lacks a certain vocal variety, which becomes a little wearing when combined with the regular rhythms of the text.

So it’s a production which loses momentum a little, mainly through trying too hard to please. There are fine passages to enjoy and many chuckles to be had, however. Special mention must be made of the set and lighting (Michael Taylor and Paul Keogan), which together manage to evoke stately pastel interiors at first, while being utterly contemporary and surprisingly versatile. Peter Coyte’s music and Charlotte Broom’s choreographic interludes, too, are extremely evocative of the period, while maintaining a modern edge.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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