Exchange Theatre has a laudable mission: to bring foreign plays to an English-speaking audience. For this alone they deserve huge credit. And their attention to classics is equally important: there is so much more to enjoy than endless outings of Shakespeare (for all his merits) and British audiences need more opportunities to explore it.
In this production of Molière’s comedy of manners, they take their internationalising ambition a step further: it is performed by the same cast in French and English on alternate nights. While clearly eye-catching as an idea, and despite the significant casting challenges that this approach inevitably raises, it isn’t clear that the audience on a given day reaps the benefit of this. There are some nods to this uniqueness, but it would have been nice to have some more substantial linguistic cross-overs. Happily, however, the play still has a strong cast, who moreover seem to enjoy their parts tremendously. They are led by director David Furlong as Alceste (the misanthrope himself), who provides range, along with a good dose of tragi-comic humour.
Furlong transposes Molière’s tale of 17th-century Parisian salons to a contemporary TV studio. A scene of catty society gossip staged as a celebrity-focused talk show is particularly fun and memorable. The hyper-modern setting is perhaps a little laboured in parts – it isn’t clear that audiences need quite so many smartphone references to realise that the works of the true greats contain universal truths, regardless of their distance from us in time. But the setting does work and certainly keeps the play visually interesting throughout.
While the production emphasises the theme of social gossip and rumour (and how these can be exacerbated by modern technology), Molière’s play is multifaceted. Alceste is a complex character: depending on one’s perspective, he is either a principled hero who justly rages against society’s baseness; or a dupe whose idealism will only serve to cost him his own happiness. He poses the moral dilemma: in the face of an individual’s powerlessness to change others’ perceived flaws, is retreat and self-isolation preferable to acceptance and grudging integration?
The production could do with a bigger venue – the cast of seven needs a bit more space to spread their wings, as could the (not that much bigger) audience. Enjoyable classic verse, coupled with a lively and inventive delivery make this production highly watchable.
Runs until 7th July
For ticket information go to https://www.cptheatre.co.uk/production/misanthrope/
Authors – Moliere
Translation – David Furlong