Skew the snobs and prick the pretentious is Moliere's mission in Les Femmes Savantes and the great playwright could not have found a better “massager of the message” than Justin Fleming's gorgeous adaptation, The Literati.
Set in a contemporary society awash with writer's festivals and book clubs (good for the nuts and bolts of publishing commerce, no doubt, but a fertile and fetid field for the cultification rather than the cultivation of culture), The Literati is a cheeky, challenging charge at the conceit of being learned, and the embedded hypocrisy of the high brow over the hoi poloi.
Philomena and her eldest daughter, Amanda, are stalwarts of the literary salon, custodians and gatekeepers of contemporary culture. Younger daughter, Juliet, has no artistic aspirations and wants nothing more than to marry Clinton, a fellow unsophisticate. But Philomena and Amanda find her intended abhorrent and demand she wed their protege poet, Tristan Tosser. Patriarch Chris would sooner see his youngest wed who she wishes, but appears outflanked by the two alpha femmes of the family. Clinton enlists the advocacy of “a true scholar”, Dr. Vadius, a genuine Griffin protecting the treasure of real culture.
Still, the counterfeit culturalists confound the path of true love, and the conflict combusts in a conflagration of the comparisons and contrasts between intellectual perfection with intellectual perversion. Philomena's mean disembowelling of her maid, Martina's, employment is illustrative of learning not imparting wisdom. Disavowing her livelihood merely because of of wayward vowels and lost consonants, a sin against syntax, is a crass and cringe-worthy class war manoeuvre.
Fleming's script is a gem of gymnastic linguistics, peppered with provocations and pleasures, as befits its classical template, astute and acerbic and unabashedly cheeky. As well as the sparkling script, much of the production's pleasure comes from the stage craft.
Sophie Fletcher's set is an inspired demonstration of transposed realism, a well heeled living room that has a central revolve, a device customarily employed to facilitate scene change, but here marvellously utilised as a tread mill of sorts. Both Philomena and Amanda are shod in high heels, and for Amanda, specifically, the shifting floor poses hilarious challenges. Jamie Oxenbould is side-splittingly good as both the father, Chris and Juliet's suitor, Clinton. His playing of a dialogue between the both of them, adroitly commandeering the moving circumference, is a genuine joy. Kate Mulvaney also ramps up the comedy, primarily as Amanda, but also in a killer cameo as an official of the court. It's a magic morsel in what is a comedic banquet. Miranda Tapsell plays Juliet pure and without pretence and doubles as the feisty Martina, the maid let go for her inelegance of eloquence. Caroline Brazier plays Philomena and doubles as Vadius. In both roles she radiates a towering gravitas, one with a pretence of wisdom, the other a true lady of learning. Gareth Davies is the only cast member not required to double, and so wallows in the wonderful wankery of the performance poet, Tristan Tosser, the preening, posturing poseur and plagiarist, the very model of unutterable twaddle.
Lee Lewis' direction is both precise and playful, pushing each pun and pratfall to full theatrical throttle without ever forcing the farce.
The play engages discussion on the superiority of intellect over emotion, the cerebral over the physical. This splendid production shows the equality of each.
Not to be missed.
Griffin Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare Present
by Justin Fleming after Molière
Director Lee Lewis
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre | 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross
Dates: 1 June – 18 July 2016
Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au | 02 9321 3817