RW: Two Classical Comedies

Molière’s legacy encompassed more than his plays. He left behind an acting style developed with his company over many years. Based at least in part on their observations of the Italian actors who shared their theatres, this style was far more realistic, more modern, that the orotund declamation and practiced posturing of the tragedians at the Hotel de Bourgogne. Because the Italians improvised their dialogue and action, at least while they were developing a new play, they acted with what we now call “concentration,” that is, they were alert to each other and to whatever was happening on the stage. They played together in the scene and in the moment. The classical tragic style, that Molière burlesqued in the Impromptu de Versailles, was rather more like that of opera as it was performed until relatively recently. Actors, for the most part, delivered arias while other actors waited their turns.

– Virginia Scott: Molière

We forget details like these. Sure, Molière the satirist. Oh, things can be so biting 200 years later! The problem, as usual, is practical: how do you make a play that was current, deliciously mean, hilarious and a popular blockbuster 200 years ago into a performance that’s current, deliciously mean, hilarious and a popular blockbuster now, and remain faithful to the text? What would a successful contemporary reworking of a Molière play look like? There would be as many answers as there are Molière-readers out there, I imagine, not least because a dramatic classic always seems to mean anything to anyone. Unlike literary classics, you see, dramatic texts are rarely pinned down into canonical meanings. Canonical interpretations, yes, but here we have 200 years thereof… and it’s not even in English.

For example, there was Tartuffe, in 2008. Evidence for examination: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Alison thought it feisty, and “rude, crude and vulgar” in the good sense of the word: “it doesn’t make a lot of sense so much as a lot of pointed nonsense.” In the comments to TimT, someone was outraged at the production resorting to cheap laughs “or sexual innuendo which really isn’t very clever at all.” Chris thought that Molière’s razor-edge satire was completely blurred and called the production a garden without the snake. ArtsHub “more slapstick than witty farce”. Martin Ball, in The Age: “the effect is comedic and parodic – burlesque, even – rather than satirical or subversive.” Notice how, in most of these reviews, Molière is promoted (or demoted) into a satirist, whereas there is an equally, if not more widespread judgement that he wrote farces. While TimT bravely examined what a perfect contemporary Molière would look like – arriving at no plausible answer, but several wildly entertaining ones – the general opinion seemed to be that it should be a sort of Wilde for the naughties. Well, messieurs. As of slapstick, I can only really say, cough ahem, commedia dell’arte.

Then came The Hypocrite. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Some distinguished company here, hiding behind the numbers, from our comrades at The Quadrant to Mr Craven at The Age. This one was easier, because apparently it wasn’t funny (Kevin Johnson liked it, but he professed not to like Molière much.) Again, crudity was a bit of a problem, but more than one reviewer praised it as a “fine show”, which signals to me that the Molière of Molière was failed by this production. The satire, clearly, was created, in the work of a man who made a play that ridiculed the critics of his last play ( La Critique de “l’École des Femmes”, following L’École des Femmes and brutally criticising every critique made thereof). Since when has that been a sign of good taste? Peter Craven, strangely enough, gives the most satisfying account, probably because his isn’t a review (he mentions a very successful Kosky production, which he apparently hated). But the most respectable trait of Mr Craven’s is his ability to praise a theatre production without apparently liking it at all. Always a sign of a good journalist, and I do mean it in the best of ways.

Now, without having settled the satire/farce dilemma, we have to turn to the VCA, which is double-billing The Bourgeois Gentleman with The Learned Ladies, as their mid-year Classical Comedies for the acting class 2009 *. Keeping in mind our opening paragraph, one must say: what a great choice. What a vehicle to show the theatrical range of these young actors right when they need it the most. And do they succeed? Partially.

I confess: Molière-for-kids was among my favourite children’s book, and generally every effort was made to bring his work down to me, not make me reverentially labour through it as an untouchable classic. As a result, perhaps, just pronouncing his name gives me an immediate uplift. To my mind, the beauty of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is the beauty of musicals, of pop songs: smooth and round-cornered and candy-coloured and somehow irreducible to intellect. There is a physical, spontaneous vigour in this theatre, a jouissance, an excess. The same elementary force that one can find in the Decameron, and completely aligned with that great expanse of bourgeois theatre that developed in the Edo-era Japan (the sewamono, with its own spectrum of stock plots and characters, from merchant bonvivants to good whores).

To be terribly Marxist about the entire thing, let’s point out that these plays appear at a time when a new class of uncouth, moneyed bourgeoisie is rising through the ranks, challenging the values of the aristocracy while, in the lack of its own Weltanschauung, it is still half-arsedly attempting to emulate its ways, creating plentiful opportunity for laughs all round. It is only once they have completely supplanted the old money that the situation can turn poignant, and we get misplaced Hedda Gablers and the revision of the samurai code. In other words, when Kath and Kim becomes a pitiful tragedy for the few, we will know that the bogans have won. It will also, I imagine, eventually result in the promotion of Kath and Kim into a witty, biting social satire of sorts, and a classic to be reverently re-made. (However, judging from the recent developments on the GFC front, it looks like the presently-moneyed are fighting well, and that won’t happen just yet.)

In any case: to try to pick out a deep-meaning theme out of these paper-thin plots and wafery characters is like looking for the Nietzche references in a Destiny’s Child album (God knows some do). These plays still have little literary value – I know them only because I was going to be a Japanologist, back when I was a serious young person. Instead, what they possess in abundance is an unbridled, manic, irreverent excess of energy, for the sheer sake of energy consumption. The biting social critique that Molière’s theatre offered to its time still has a lateral function, an explanation of sorts, a hinge to hang on to and nod, because it offers an analytical way in, but perhaps it is the performance itself, a slippery thing made entirely out of “concentration”, that we should be looking at. Perhaps, like stand-up comedy, like Olympic sports, the meaning of the action is entirely secondary to the execution.

Thomas Conroy, Annie Last and Emmeli Johansson in The Learned Ladies. Photo Jeff Busby.

And is it executed wonderfully? Partially! The two comedies are not so much directed, as staged; and without a strong directorial statement, in the present situation in which the meaning of Molière is anything but clear, this is a veritable minefield. Paul Weingott’s The Learned Ladies veers uncertainly between the usual poles: wanting to be hilarious, and wanting to be a biting satire. The latter fails for all the reasons implied above: when we laugh at the semi-learned ladies, who are we laughing at? The newly impoverished poor? The mythical bogan? The satire satirises nothing. The former, though, doesn’t quite occur either: there is a lot going on in this version of The Learned Ladies, but nothing quite adds up. There is music, there is dancing, there is acting, there is a love story. In the most unfortunate choice of them all, there is also semi-gloom, decay and ominous roaring, which may be signifying the end of the world (see GFC), but it’s a finger not quite pointing in any direction. Left to their own devices, the young actors do their best.

If The Bourgeois Gentleman succeeds, it is precisely because the play is only a pretext for the actors to go nuts. Without looking at creating relevance, Gary Down allows it to be a two-act piss-take, and the result is not biting, not a popular blockbuster, not necessarily deliciously mean either, but certainly hilarious. The performers seem more settled in their respective roles, probably because the aims of this production are better delineated, allowing them to explore the performative extremes of the types they are playing. From the mirrored romantic comedy of the bourgeois/servant couples, the greedy flattery of the exasperated teachers, the aristocratic antics, the merchant common sense of Mme Jourdain, and the role-playing Turks, every gesture is amplified beyond obvious references, creating interactions and situations so utterly over-the-top as to resemble the most absurd of the Monty Python moments. However, Mike Steele owns the show as Mr Jourdain, the taker of lessons in all arts plus philosophy, the ultimate aspirational. Barely absent from stage, his persona is both broadly effeminate and resolutely crass, a sort of all-encompassing caricature that stand-up comedians sometimes develop, an image both recognizable and exquisitely original. It is worth seeing for his performance alone.

Michael Steele and Kyle Baxter in The Bourgeois Gentleman. Photo Jeff Busby.

To return to our first reference point, Molière can be a fantastic vehicle for young actors: it demands an out-there-ness that an actor can play with in most flooring ways. It demands big-ego, big-ball performances. It attracts attention – hopefully. But until we figure out whether we want our Molière poignant or hysterical, it seems slippery territory for directors. The relative success of these two comedies shows precisely the problems with treating Jean-Baptiste as an ideas man. Although both offer material that could be re-relevantized into contemporary issues, they work the best when they completely sideline that thought, and play with the upper limits of the form. Paradoxically, it is when they forget all that boring stuff about contemporary references, and instead sink into the excess, the near-absurd caricature, the farce, that the comedies genuinely engage their audiences.

EDIT: I had previously made a claim that the Classical Comedies were the Class 2009’s final productions. This is wrong, since we’re mid-year, and a result of a very strange confusion in my mind, to do with the Northern Hemisphere and my own sense of lagging behind. Apologies.

The Bourgeois Gentleman. By Molière. Directed by Gary Down.

The Learned Ladies By Molière. Directed by Paul Weingott.

Acting Company 2009 with Production Students. Both showing at VCA, Performing Arts Building, 28 Dodds Street Southbank, until Saturday 6 June, 2009.

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One thought on “RW: Two Classical Comedies

  1. […] of this kind that understands and honours their lack of seriousness (the most recent was probably The Bourgeois Gentleman, a VCA student work ’09 and a delicious, hyper-silly rendition of Moliere). They tend to turn out […]

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