Monday, 19 June 2017
Review The Misanthrope
Back To You In The Studio, Alceste
The bilingual theatre company Exchange promises much in an interesting, if deeply flawed, version of Molière's classic 17th century tragicomedy The Misanthrope.
The milieu is updated from the French court to a contemporary TV and radio current affairs channel. Alceste is the misanthropic news anchor whose increasingly, in the eyes of others, bizarre behaviour makes him bite the very hand that feeds him.
In a age when citizens globally are increasingly turning from mainstream news to a mishmash of opinion, soundbites, memes but also some genuinely investigative alternative sources, it's a pretty good concept for Molière's satire.
However, once the initial idea is in place, this under-rehearsed production doesn't fully think through the situation or push towards all the logical conclusions. It's not helped by an over-fussy set which tries to emulate a cinematic look but ends up impeding the action.
After a hesitant start and rather muffled diction also afflicting some other roles, the Alceste of David Furlong (who also directs) does develop as a very strong lead and gains in clarity and eventually pathos.
His dark-eyed, expressive looks both fit the 21st century role and give a glimpse of the 17th century courtier. This is in keeping with a successful verse translation, plus some additions for the new media age, which wisely doesn't attempt to change the fundamental 17th century text.
Alceste is a TV anchor who turns against the hypocrisy of the life around him, railing at a world of artificiality, sycophancy and fraud.
His uncompromising position when he refuses to give a flattering response to a wealthy would-be rapper and love rival (Palmyre Ligué) leads to a law suit. Meanwhile another of his targets, fellow TV celebrity Célimène (Anoushka Ravanshad) to whom he is also attracted, threatens his very sense of self.
It would be all too easy to call this version a mixture of the movie Network with the TV comedy series Drop The Dead Donkey, but Molière's satire has a double edged potency and complexity which makes this a very crude summary.
Yet, with some uneven performances aside, this production seems diverted by Donald Trump and fake news - video news clips and musical interludes roll on too long - and it misses a simpler and more focussed premise - a hard news reporter frustrated by his promotion to the role of celebrity presenter.
There are consistently strong performances from Simeon Oakes as more measured colleague Philinte and Fanny Dulin as female co-presenter Eliante.
However other roles lack timing with self-conscious Amadeus-like brays of laughter and awkward poses and pauses.
There are also performances in French on alternate nights, but the English version was decidedly under powered on press night, even if there were some powerful moments.
Frustratingly, as with the concept, all the cast gave signs of being capable of better. However, this is a play which relies on a dynamic and intricate domino effect leaving the audience with no easy answers.
The lasting impression was of an under-developed idea which left the actors adrift from each other, without a precise compass for their particular role, rather than sparking a chain reaction which Alceste finally ruptures. It's a lower range amber light.