You can’t go wrong with Roger McGough, can you? And that wonderful poster of a red and white betighted leg crashing down on a ChoccyWoccy cake, promising a riotous night of 17th Century anarchy and wit can’t be that misleading, can it?
Yes, and, I’m afraid, yes.
This is the story of a misanthrope, a people-hater, a misery. So naturally I took my mum with me.
English Touring Theatre have now produced three Moliere plays adapted by Roger McGough, a natural choice you would imagine to bring the 16th Century playwright’s playful quippery a little up to date.
The plot itself is slight: Alceste (Colin Tierney) has tired of the superficiality of seventeenth century Parisian salon life and the arch flattery and pomposity that goes with it. So how does he rebel? He stops talking in verse.
Moliere’s original was written in Alexandrines, twelve syllable rhyming couplets, but McGough loosens this up as, he says, ‘the endless thudding rhymes prove soporific to the modern ear’. Rhyming equals class in this piece. The point is brought home by Alceste’s servant who struggles vainly to keep up with the fashion, only to come out with the most daft doggerel.
But Alceste is a Rebel, with a humongous R. His mate Philinte (Simon Coates), the sane, stable voice of the piece, gently mocks his pretentions and points out that this ‘big rebel’ is in love with the universally desired young widow, Celimene, so can’t be that much of a rebel at all.
Set in Celimene’s salon (turned into a garden twice by the odd addition of some camel-shaped topiary), and in a sassed up period dress, this production is, like it’s plot, static. Nout happens. People talk to each other. In rhyme. They flatter each other, they throw barbed compliments at each other. We get the idea: high society is false, a pretence, nothing is real, everything is a show.
Does Alceste’s character manage to cut through this? This should be what the plot turns on but, strangely, the Misanthrope himself is quite a sparse presence in the play. He jumps in here and there with cutting, society-shocking remarks, slyly trying to get the other characters to realise what fops and fools they are, but in the end you find yourself siding with the fops and fools rather than the egotistical Alceste.
To be honest, the plot is so slight, the characters so unengaging, the language so ‘wink wink’-ingly knowing, that I felt like I was drowning in custard by the end of it.
And here’s the real problem. McGough’s words are just not funny. They’re not even interesting which is just THE cardinal sin for a bloody poet. “Get thee to a nunnery: are you making fun of me?” gives a wincing flavour. This is just not acceptable punnery even in rep. “He’s the tit at the start of tittle-tattle.” No? Me neither. When the biggest laugh of the night comes from two puppet dogs you know the production’s in trouble.
The acting is adequate, with the stand-outs being the pouffed up Clitandre (Leander Deeny channelling Matt Lucas), and the sweetly shrill Eliante (Alison Pargeter). Tierney unfortunately has a very grating, barking voice, while Harvey Virdi (the rather redundant Arsinoe) is just not good at all.
Ultimately, this is a one note production. It is a static production. It begins well with an elegant masque, but that really is the best bit of staging you get all evening. The cast stay still. The dialogue stays still. You should stay still in your own house and give this stinker a miss.
Stars there be one * (oooh arrghh, one star)