The Misanthrope

Based on the original by Molière
Adapted by Roger McGough
Directed by Gemma Bodinetz
English Touring Theatre
Liverpool Playhouse
15th February - 19th March 2013

Reviewed by Kitty Spathia

The English Touring Theatre made a satirical and unapologetic dig in the ribs of social convention.

I walked into the Playhouse alone, and was the only member of the press team with an empty seat next to her. I began to wonder about the significance of Nerve’s choice to send me to review Roger McGough’s The Misanthrope

The play is an adaptation of Molière's, this time written in the 1980s but set in the French court of the 1600s. The performance opens with the footman, Dubois (Neil Caple), hurtling down the theatre aisle bearing a candle, down to the chandelier which sits centre stage on floor level. Interestingly ‘the candle bearer’ in French means the ‘third wheel’, the odd one out’ - who is the odd one out here?

The grand double doors are flung open and a flurry of masqueraded gentry dance through – a hint at the deceptive nature of appearances? The harpsichord’s pounding was stimulating and I wished there could have been fuller use of music and set because what little there was used appropriately and entertainingly.

Alceste is our main man; an imposing figure who drapes his audience with a smouldering glare, quite fitting for the contempt in which the character holds society. From Act 1, Alceste decides to remove himself from speaking in verse, while the rest of the characters continue to do so. His decision not to rhyme is not to save McGough the bother of finding a word to rhyme with ‘flatulent’ (a word used to criticize Orante’s sonnet), it makes a point of the Misanthrope’s non-conformist ways… and what is a misanthrope if not the one who chooses to take the ‘small’ out of ‘small talk’? A victim of harsh judgment from those who chose to uphold society’s contrived ways?

Could Alceste’s withdrawal from rhyme be a political statement too?

In Shakespeare’s plays the characters from the nobility spoke in verse while the serving classes and below spoke in plain prose. McGough isn’t so clear-cut- he plays with the distinction great comic effect, making the cast juggle prose, modern verse and pompous, antiquated verse. Dubois is a footman and visibly struggles to get his meaning across in the structure of rhyme:

"We must run away,
Quietly, without delay,
For is we don’t, I swear to G-d,
We will be squashed like to fleas…in a pod…Peas?)
(Act 4)

In this way, the underdog as well as the non-conformist, he pokes fun at the nobility’s verbose bumf, highlighting the unnecessary convolution of the ruling classes. Dubois also sticks it to them in his good use of physical theatre. He doesn’t have to speak to be arresting, watching him just stand upstage with his mouth open, staring at his master in befuddlement had me smirking.

However The Misanthrope is only subtly political; first and foremost it’s a social critique of norms, hypocrisy, and how people are preoccupied by appearances. Célimène (played by Zara Tempest-Walters) is more fit for the stage in stature than she is vocally. Her face is very expressive – contorting here and brimming with smugness there, but she could work on her projection and the resonance on her voice. Célimène is Alceste’s Achilles’ heel and manages to charm him into giving up some of his ‘Grinchness’, in exchange for some courtship, but it’s Alison Pargeter as Eliante who charms the audience, adding unscripted giggles and gestures which elevate her above the rank of ‘Fourth business’. Perhaps though, Tempest-Walters is just the ticket. She represents the two-faced filth parading in a garb of external beauty which, when someone goes to the trouble of uncovering it for us, we love to scorn. She shows that for certain people friendships only go so far: to the point where gossip is juicier. By the time she is revealed to society as having had everyone on, the audience is snuggled smugly in their seat at their own perceived moral superiority, ‘I would never be so petty/petit!’. Coming across as suitably contemptible is not something to be sneered at.

There is a public shaming of Célimène as the letters she wrote to lead on her suitors are aloud. However she makes a fair point:

"The others I despised,
For they encouraged me in my coquettish role."

Society tends to push women into a position where their only acknowledged value is that of poise and elegance (as the only alternative to ‘maternal’, ‘girly’ or ‘witch-like’). Then shouldn’t they play the hand they have been dealt? It seems like Célimène is being punished for putting her best foot forward. The suitors chose to admire her for nothing but her beauty and elegance and when rejected, shun her. Moliere tapped into more than he knew in portraying an ‘Alpha female’ in society!

Alceste saw more in her, but by the end, shuns her too because she led everyone on. His second choice of sweetheart, Eliante, whom he left waiting in the wings, shacks up with Paul McCartney-esque Philinte (Simon Coates). Our sympathy is with the protagonist though because he is alone…the only other option to selling out?

The Misanthrope heard many chortles from the audience, to the point that the cast appeared overwhelmed when they were cheered on stage to take a bow for the third time. With good timing and silly jigs, the English Touring Theatre knocked their Liverpool audience squarely on the ‘funny bone’!

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