The Misanthrope

ABI BENNETT on a play which only succeeds in aesthetics.

Abi Bennett antonia eklund George Johnston laurie coldwell moliere

Fitzpatrick Theatre at Queens’, 2-6th November, 7.30pm.  £5-7.

Directed by George Johnston


I had high hopes for this production: an interesting text, not often performed in Cambridge, an accomplished, talented cast, and set and costumes of a standard rarely seen. So why did it leave me with little or no impression, other than that of having watched a mediocre living room drama for nearly two hours?

The main problem was Tony Harrison’s translation of Molière’s script, which keeps the rhyming couplets and transposes the action to ‘60s Paris. Although the theory behind the change in era made sense, in practice it didn’t work, especially as the set and costumes were of an early ‘70s suburban England. The rhyming couplets could have worked if the actors had used a modern day inflection, but more often than not they didn’t, producing a bizarre semi-poetic delivery that was more soporific than absorbing. This is not really anyone’s fault other than the translator, though perhaps George Johnston could have pushed for a more contemporaneous delivery.

Although none of the performances were awful, neither of the leads particularly shone. Antonia Eklund’s Celimène was vacuous and brittle; the lack of any background to her character making empathy problematic. After the performance, someone informed me that Celimène is often played as an alcoholic.  Some sort of semblance of this in the performance or direction would certainly have made her constant flip-flopping between men much more understandable.

Laurie Coldwell as Alceste managed a convincing portrayal of sarcasm in the first half, though his opening scene with Philinte (Adam Sullivan) dragged. However, his ability to talk about poetry didn’t translate into any expression of the pain felt by his character.  That is not to say that there weren’t any good performances; Caitlin Doherty was fabulously bitchy as Arsinoe, and the double act of Clitandre and Acaste (Nick Melgaard and Alex Mackeith respectively) got audible laughs from an otherwise lagging audience.

Paula Petkova and Jess Lane’s set neatly functions as a metaphor for the crux of this production’s problems. Although stunning, it didn’t allow for any progression of place or time, the action of the play feeling forever confined. Confusingly, Alceste left out of the back door to flee Paris while the set was playing the part of Celimène’s living room, only to come back in by the side door a few moments later. I could only assume that the set was now meant to be his own living room. This disrupted the flow of events, and made any character arc indistinguishable.

As with the rest of the play, the focus on the aesthetic, although successful, masked a lack of thought about every other aspect of the production.