Left – Ben Gerrard. Cover – Ben Gerrard and Danielle Cormack. Photos – Brett Boardman
Sometimes an adaptation can be both straightforward and complex at the same time, diverging wildly in text or theme or characterisation, yet retaining other essentials that mark it as possessing the same theatrical DNA, however cross-bred or mutated. Justin Fleming’s rollicking new version of Molière’s least farcical satire is in many respects extremely close to the classic version, as it follows the original plot precisely, and barring a trio of minor servant roles being cut, has the exact same characters. What is somewhat unusual is the rather complex way in which the setting has been modernised, especially by the crosscasting of half of the characters’ genders.
Needless to say, there is nothing new about a modern-dress production, or even a dramaturgical overhaul of the script beyond mere translation to incorporate modern references in the local vernacular. Nor is changing the gender of some characters, even a lead role, remotely unheard of in the world of “Queen Lear” productions and suchlike. But rather than one or two substitutions, or even a total genderswap of the entire cast, Fleming has instead created a very intriguing web of reorientation. Of the eight characters presented, two apiece of Molière’s originally female roles are now rendered male and vice versa, while of the four other parts, three remain male and one is still female. At first flush one might suspect this was intended to create gender parity in the cast, yet the same ratio of five men to three women actually remains (ignoring that two of the male roles are doubled, it’s still four to three).
What then, does this redistribution of the characters’ genders achieve? Well, for starters it “queers” the text, presenting a much more modern and pluralistic portrait of high society, recontextualised here as a collection of celebrities and hangers-on in an unspecified yet glamorous wing of the entertainment industry. Although the central contested relationship is still between a man and a woman, albeit in reversed places from the original, virtually all of the characters are rendered implicitly gay, bisexual or, as one character puts it, “non-binary” at the very least.
Thus a now female lead character Alceste, the titular misanthrope, is tormented by the fickle and duplicitous flirtations of her would-be boyfriend Cymbeline (originally Célimène) towards his suitors, who themselves nevertheless remain otherwise male, as in the original text. The nearest she has to a friend, Philippa (Philinte) is now also a woman, yet Eleanor (Éliante) remains female, thus rendering their own separate triangle of unrequited feelings sapphic in both directions. Meanwhile, one of Alceste’s jealous admirers is flipped from female to male, yet seems to perhaps have interest in Cymbeline all the same, and other characters appear similarly fluid or unspecified in their preferences.
Aside from adding some welcome diversity and hopefully broader appeal to a revered classic, this remixing of the sex and sexuality of Molière’s characters seems to perhaps serve another purpose as well, because a face-value modernisation of the play with the original orientations intact could very well run the risk of needing to be retitled from The Misanthrope to The Misogynist. Not that the focus of Molière’s text should actually be interpreted as such since his venomous pen attacks all and sundry, but to modern sensibilities the plot centring on an angrily self-important male lead, smitten with yet enraged by a vain and fickle woman who keeps stringing along multiple suitors… could easily be rendered along unfortunately patriarchal or even “slut-shaming” lines if simplistically represented in a present day setting.
By remaking the indignant intellectual misanthrope railing against hypocrisy into a self-actualised woman, and the preening disingenuous flirt she is obsessed with pansexually reimagined as a self-described “fuckboy”, the interpersonal dynamic shifts away from being clamped under the embattled lens of modern gender politics. Instead, we are invited to treat these characters as essentially just that, characters, and the way their obsessive personal foibles reflect broader hypocrisies and superficiality in society. The result is that we arguably have here something closer to what Molière actually intended. It may be a step too far for some who would prefer a more traditional approach, but for any kind of translation of the characters to a modernised setting, it is just possibly a stroke of brilliance.
Indeed, one can see a similar expression of this impulse to honour the spirit if not the precise execution of the classic play in the way Fleming even retains an approximation of Molière’s use of verse. The whole playscript is rendered with a rather beguiling verbal dexterity that frequently shifts its rhyming schemes in and out of couplets, never allowing audience complacency nor formalist expectations to set in. Dialogue dances between the occasionally lyrical and the frequently profane, with a modern Australian idiom and various wry contemporary references worked in with a surprisingly breezy audacity. It’s not your average night at the theatre that has you sitting there on tenterhooks, wondering how they will find something that rhymes with “Channel Nine scumbag” or “limp dick-biscuit”.
Eye-catchingly directed by Lee Lewis, the action takes place in what seems to be a series of backstage or studio areas, amidst the production of music videos or fashion shoots. With a meticulous design by Dan Potra, the initially cluttered stage is progressively pared back, echoing how the characters’ layers of artifice and pretention are stripped bare by the story’s end.
The cast is exceptional, with Anthony Taufa as Angus (Acaste) and Rebecca Massey as Philippa (Philinte) getting big laughs as well as quieter dramatic moments, while Catherine Davies and Simon Burke also do very well in the more dour and thus comparatively thankless roles of Eleanor and Arsenio, respectively. It is not especially clear why Hamish Michael is the only cast member who doubles up, playing both the suitors Orton (Oronte) and Cleveland (Clitandre), but he does a smashing job of playing both parts as entirely distinct flavours of fool, and even gets to do some quick-change gags while swapping between characters within a single scene, to hilarious effect.
Ben Gerrard is striking to say the least as Cymbeline, the flirtatious, suitor-juggling society maven reconceived as some kind of mercurial, post-boyband fashionista for the Instagram age. He is a startling vision as a lean, peroxide-coiffed Adonis, forever flashing his outrageously ripped physique as he changes outfits or, as often as not, remains shirtless. To give Gerrard his due, he handles the dramatic scenes with complete aplomb, but his sheer physical presence and comedic timing culminate to hilarious heights in a succession of scene-change vignettes. As though filming a music video, he outrageously poses and lipsynchs to dreadful autotuned pop drivel while draping his lithe form across a divan or, at one point, a huge unicorn statue.
The star, and certainly the selling point of the show, is Danielle Cormack as Alceste, and she is most certainly brilliant in the role. She imbues the character with all the requisite sparkling wit, scathing sarcasm, withering distain, pining love and self-loathing hypocrisy one could require, yet with an underscoring pulse of humanity and pain that gives the character much-needed nuance. It is a blisteringly good performance, with Cormack carefully balancing the fundamental unlikeability of the character as an insufferably opinionated and self-righteous iconoclast with still breathing into the role a permeating charm and appealing cleverness that makes the character magnetic rather than potentially tiresome.
Lewis and Fleming have hit upon something special in this Bell Shakespeare/Griffin Theatre co-production, a bracingly fresh yet remarkably faithful remix of Molière’s great play. In diffusing the inadvertently misogynistic potential of a more plodding approach to modernisation, they have created something that feels both timely and timeless, of the moment yet cut very much from the classic’s cloth.
Bell Shakespeare in association with Griffin Theatre Company presents
by by Molière in a new version by Justin Fleming
Director Lee Lewis
Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 28 August – 28 September 2018