The Misanthrope

Bell Shakespeare The Misanthrope Danielle Cormack and Rebecca Massey - photo by Brett BoardmanAlceste is incredibly witty and totally intolerant of social niceties. People should tell it the way it is, she extols. Her lawyer and friend advises caution. Orton, a devotee of Alceste, comes on bended knee seeking encouragement for his latest pop tune.

Alceste however only has eyes for Cymbeline, a musician slash model with immaculate abdominals. For the next couple of hours, as the program states, “Bruised egos and broken hearts are littered across the stage, but true love prevails.”

This is a very funny production. It opens in rhyming couplets which many Australians may fear will become tiring. Justin Fleming, the writer slash translator of Molière’s 1666 original work, flags that he tackled this issue head on by varying the rhyming scheme. AABB for scenes about insincerity, ABAB for brutal truth, ABBA for love (the band would be pleased).

He writes that the audience stops knowing when the rhyme will come and focuses on the meaning, so that when a rhyme does appear it’s a kind of pay-off. I can confirm all of this theorizing works in practice. Many of the lines did rhyme, but not predictably, and while the rhyming may diminish a sense of naturalism, it heightens a feeling of playfulness and lends weight to punch lines, often drawing belly laughs from the audience.

Fleming reasons that Molière is so popular in Australia because the writer focused on a mistrust of the pillars of society, disliked hypocrisy and was suspicious of extremes. Molière may be particularly relevant now because he gave powerful voices to the marginalised.

When director Lee Lewis asked Fleming if Alceste might be played by a woman he attempted to envisage Molière’s response and then replied, “Go for it!” Danielle Cormack’s passionate and dynamic portrayal of Alceste is the beating heart of this production and she never loses the audience’s sympathy for a moment as she mercilessly roasts her enemies while pursuing both her Pyrrhic victories and her heart’s desire.

The set design by director Lee Lewis and designer Dan Potra is really outstanding in this production, providing endless enjoyment. My eye was constantly roving the stage, scene after scene, taking in delightfully subtle details as I tried to make sense of it all.

The costumes (Potra) are luscious and playful, featuring a colourful blend of tracksuits and velour. The inspired lighting choices (Matthew Marshall) are almost a character of their own, providing plenty of laughs in conjunction with puckish musical moments (Max Lambert and Roger Lock).

The performances are confident and commanding across the board, with a typically wonderful appearance from Rebecca Massey, who relentlessly, and in vain, attempts to inject a note of lawyerly caution to the proceedings. Ben Gerrard, Hamish Michael and Anthony Taufa are all side-splittingly funny.

Catherine Davies as Eleanor is at front and centre of perhaps the two most touching set pieces of the night: an unwavering note of true love in the cacophony of lust and betrayal. This is a great night out at the theatre; especially if you are devoted to Molière, fashion, The French, abs, unicorns, anything that costs far more than it should, or all the things that are truly priceless.

The Misanthrope
Playhouse – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Friday 14 September 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 28 September 2018

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Image: Danielle Cormack and Rebecca Massey star in The Misanthrope – photo by Brett Boardman

Review: Oliver Wakelin