The Misanthrope review: Performances strain against rhyming virtuosity
Advertisement

The Misanthrope review: Performances strain against rhyming virtuosity

THEATRE

THE MISANTHROPE ★★★

Gender swapping: Ben Gerrard and Danielle Cormack in The Misanthrope.

Gender swapping: Ben Gerrard and Danielle Cormack in The Misanthrope.Credit:Brett Boardman

Playhouse, August 31, until September 28

Reviewed by JOHN SHAND

Advertisement
Danielle Cormack plays the central character, Alceste​, the title's misanthrope.

Danielle Cormack plays the central character, Alceste​, the title's misanthrope.Credit:Brett Boardman

At their best the rhymes come fizzing and spitting at you, the wit sizzling as writer Justin Fleming throws fat on Moliere's​ fire. At other times the work feels more laboured, as if Moliere's​ satire and Fleming's metre, rhymes and token modernity have been scrunched​ together like so many peak-hour commuters on a Sydney train.

Fleming has explained in these pages how and why he has varied his rhyme schemes' architecture in previously adapting Moliere​, and this ingenuity lubricates the wit as much the many clever rhymes, themselves. Such flashes of virtuosity on Fleming's part let us glimpse how Moliere​ dazzled his audiences 350 years ago, and, for those fluent in French, continues to do so.

Oddly enough, however, this particular play, widely considered his finest, was a flop in Paris in 1666, primarily because the central character, Alceste​, the title's misanthrope, is not intrinsically comical. Even today, he – or in this joint Bell Shakespeare/Griffin Theatre production, she – tests the audience almost as much as she does the other characters with her relentless fault-finding of the rest of humanity. Her saving grace – beyond her unfaltering honour and probity – is her ability to detect her own faults, also.

Director Lee Lewis suggested Fleming swap Alceste's​ gender, and it has been made to work. Nonetheless, because the character is more admirable than likeable, the actor must bring some compensatory charisma, and Danielle​ Cormack does show sparks of this, particularly early on. But as the play develops and Alceste​ becomes more frustrated, Cormack loses this ability to compensate us with charm. Despite finding humanity so deeply flawed, Alceste's​ anger should be tempered with a quality akin to despairing of its foibles. Although Cormack is capable of exuding a certain energy and effervescence, somewhere between her performance, Lewis's direction and Fleming's writing, a disproportionate stridency sneaks in.

Cymbeline​, played by Ben Gerrard, is a pop star of preening narcissism.

Cymbeline​, played by Ben Gerrard, is a pop star of preening narcissism.Credit:Brett Boardman

That gender-swap necessitated others, including Celimene​, Alceste's​ love-interest, becoming Cymbeline​ (Ben Gerrard), in what is the production's most entertaining creation. Cymbeline​ is a pop star of such preening narcissism (if that is not tautological) that one wonders what Alceste​ could possibly see in him, given that you'd expect her to lose her heart to more than pretty-boy looks and modest talent. He also has such rare capacity for believing his own lies that a future in politics may beckon if his stardom proves fleeting.

Cymbeline​ is a flirtatious and promiscuous 20-year-old, his aversion to commitment outweighing​ the genuine attraction he feels for Alceste​, not just physically, but as a potentially beneficent force in his life – although her vision of a shared, secluded monogamy is his vision of hell.

Alas all the performances (and directing) are strained and seem to strain against the text. Rebecca Massey is Philippa, Alceste's​ friend, an irritating busybody with a keen, Moliere-like instinct for the middle ground in any row, and Hamish Michael is Orton, the would-be songwriter to whose art Alceste​ applies a verbal sanding machine (justly branding his internal rhymes as crimes). Simon Burke is the self-righteous moralist, Arsenio​, Anthony Taufa​ the self-impressed Angus and Catherine Davies Cymbeline's​ devoted sister Eleanor. Max Lambert and Roger Lock's music plays a diverting role – as does a unicorn, with designer Dan Potra​ locating the play in a champagne-guzzling world of video-clip production.

Overall, Fleming makes the satire of hypocrites, liars, role-players and, yes, critics, more savage than Moliere's​. Yet were this Alceste​ successful in snaring Cymbeline​ she would not be so very far removed from a Jane Austen heroine.