Left – Harriet Dyer and John Adam. Photo – Brett Boardman.
Bell Shakespeare's The School For Wives is a riot. At two hours and forty minutes it's probably a little long, but it fizzes and rockets along so jauntily you hardly even feel it. Justin Fleming's translation of Moliere's play is sparkly and clever, and Lee Lewis directs a production full of pizzazz that is a pleasure to watch.
Arnolde (John Adam) wants to get married. He has a problem, however: he really, truly, desperately hates women, believing that as soon as they gain even a modicum of education, they become ungovernable, deceitful, and socially ruinous. His solution is to carefully raise Agnes (Harriet Dyer, in a truly lovely performance), a young girl who has been in his care since infancy, and to mould her to his specifications: he has her raised in a convent in total ignorance. He wants to be the Pygmalion to her Galatea, Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle, firmly believing that he is creating the perfect woman. Agnes, on the other hand, has other ideas, particularly when she encounters young romantic Horace (Meyne Wyatt). What has been lacking in Agnes's nurture, Arnolde could not exorcise from her nature: there is steel and determination in Agnes that not even total ignorance can suppress. Add in some wacky hijinks from some servants (wonderful comic performances from Alexandra Aldrich and Andrew Johnston), a whole lot of atmospheric comic music (ably played by Bill Bailey lookalike Mark Jones), some truly farcical situations and an ending so neat it could be tied up with a bow, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening.
I especially want to comment on both the actresses in this piece, Harriet Dyer and Alexandra Aldrich, who are absolute standouts. They both have a real sense for comedy - Dyer for comic timing and delivery, Aldrich for physical comedy - and it will be a real shame if they don't pop up in some more funny stuff sometime soon. There are more than a few sexist diatribes out there in the world claiming that women are not inherently funny: it is only fitting that in a play like The School for Wives, where misogynist Arnolde is proved so terribly, terribly wrong, that this idea is also effectively undermined. These two performers were the standouts for me, but special mention must also go to John Adam, whose performance as Arnolde kept him from being a cardboard cutout woman-hater but still left the audience cheering at his comeuppance, and to Andrew Johnston, whose rendition of servant Alan recalled nothing so much as Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Commendation must also go to Meyne Wyatt. This is the first time I've seen him do comedy, and I enjoyed his work here a lot (and I would be remiss not to mention that he has the most expressive pair of eyebrows I've seen on stage in a long while!).
It would be easy to let this production slip into caricature and melodrama, but director Lee Lewis has very capably left it teetering just on the edge. It's not at all an indulgent production: nothing about it feels laboured. Its lightness and cleverness serve to highlight, rather than conceal, the dark abyss of misogyny that lies beneath it - and by highlighting it, proceeds to laugh in its face. I really enjoyed The School for Wives. The very beginning is perhaps a little slow, but once the plot really begins to roll, it's great fun. Check this one out.
Bell Shakespeare presents
The School For Wives
by Molière | translated by Justin Fleming
Director Lee Lewis
Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 23 October 2012 – 24 November 2012
Tickets: $45 – $72