Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Misanthrope - Roger McGough, after Moliere - Liverpool Playhouse 20/03/2013

I think even Roger McGough himself was nonplussed when asked to write an adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe for presentation at the Liverpool Playhouse during 2008, Liverpool's Capital of Culture year.

The result, however, became the stuff of legend, and was followed in 2009 by a second outing, the Hypochondriac, which was equally well received.

Those of us lucky enough to have seen these two productions have held a sort of hope that they'd do it again - and they have - for one last time, we're told.

The kind of farce, frippery and wordplay that worked in 17th Century France doesn't exactly translate easily, as others have discovered to their cost. It takes a man with the ear for it to do justice to creating a new English version of these plays, which retains the meaning but more importantly restores the sharp acerbic wit in a manner that really works. Luckily, Roger McGough has just such an ear, and the poetic voice to go with it.

As with the previous instalments of what has now become a trilogy, the production is directed by the Everyman Playhouse company's artistic director, Gemma Bodinetz, and she and her creative team have assembled a pretty much perfect cast for the task. There are one or two "McGoughiere" regulars and others new to the team, but they act together as a perfectly choreographed whole, and not just in the scenes that required a choreographer.

This work runs a little less amok than Tartuffe or the Hypochondriac, with less of the Brian Rix slamming of doors and running about and a little more time for us to savour the characters and the relentless wit of the text.

Colin Tierney in the part of Alceste, the eponymous misanthrope who refuses early on to conform to the required convention of speaking in verse, is wickedly funny, savouring his lines like delicate canapés. We can almost see him tasting the words as they roll from his tongue and his eyes do a fair bit of rolling themselves, adding a drop of relish to each line as he lets them hang in the air, visibly cringing on occasions when he lets loose an inadvertent rhyme.

But this is not a vehicle for one star, and the entire cast work as a well-oiled machine in some really splendid ensemble work, whilst the text allows for all the players to have space in the spotlight and develop their characters. Daniel Goode’s one-eyed Oronte is at times cringingly funny as he seems to embarrass himself more at every turn in his quest to woo Célimène. Leander Deeney and George Potts play a splendid double-act as Clitandre and Acaste, teetering close to the edge of falling into pantomime dame territory but never quite slipping over the edge. Watch out for some splendid business (sorry) with a pair of lapdogs, but don’t worry; no animals were harmed in the making of this production!

Completing the male line-up are Simon Coates as Alceste’s friend Philinte and Neil Caple as his manservant. Coates has appeared in all three of these adaptations and was most recently seen on this stage in The Alchemist. His deft delivery of advice to his friend in delicious verse is something I shall not forget in a long time. Neil Caple too was in the Hypochondriac and I also recall him from that Scottish play at the Everyman. Nothing so serious here, as he provides a foil to all the elegance and finery, his character struggling to find rhymes at the end of almost every appearance.

And what of our three ladies? Harvey Virdi as Arsinoé makes her presence felt as a powerful ally, or maybe adversary, to Célimène, distinctively decked in black. Alison Pargeter’s Eliante is a delicate flower, and at one point to be seen tending the garden, only to have her efforts trampled underfoot by... who would that be?

But it is probably Zara Tempest Walters who cuts the most commanding presence of all as the tale’s central love-interest, Célimène. I do hope that the two staff responsible for wardrobe maintenance have a copious supply of feathers, as with every move she sends flurries of them swirling into the wings, and into the front rows of the audience, her extravagant costume occupying more space on the stage than two or three of the other players put together. She manages to tread a line between seduction and coquettishness that keeps the rest of the cast on their toes throughout.

On the subject of wardrobe, how can our cast fail to get into character when dressed in such exquisitely detailed costumes? Sitting at the front of the stalls I was simply amazed by the attention to detail. The set, too, is a delight; allowing plenty of space for movement while setting the tone and atmosphere for the entire piece. The way it cleverly suggests an enclosed highly decorated interior but allows for a simple transformation to a garden is a both practical and effective solution to the rapid scene changes needed to maintain the pace. Designer Michael Taylor was also responsible for the Ladykillers here at the Playhouse and on tour, and his designs for this production, while less complex, are every bit as carefully thought through and detailed. Keep your eyes peeled at the very end, as the set gives up one last quirky surprise for the closing scene.

The production is beautifully lit by Paul Keogan, while Peter Coyte’s music and Fergus O’Hare’s sound design add the finishing glossy touches. These three have previously worked with Gemma Bodinetz, between them including Streetcar, Macbeth and Tartuffe.

The Misanthrope runs to 9th March 2013 at Liverpool Playhouse and is then touring until 1st June.
See or for details and tickets.

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