Molière in a version by Tony Harrison

Review originally published in The Arts Desk on 10 October 2010

When Tony Harrison created his version of Molière’s “The Misanthrope” in the early 70’s and transposed the 17th century comedy classic to the present-day, he managed, with his characteristic and brilliant combination of savagery and wit, to make the play feel totally contemporary. For Andrew Hilton’s new production at the Bristol Old Vic, Harrison has tweaked the play into the 21st century, with characters clutching iPhones and boasting of their connections with Sarkozy. Molière’s masterpiece is about human failings and the reason this classic makes us laugh today is because we recognise ourselves in the characters that parade their foibles across the stage throughout the course of the play.

Andrew Hilton, who has established a well-deserved national reputation for his outstanding stripped-down productions of Shakespeare at South Bristol’s Tobacco Factory, has always focused his work on the text. Tony Harrison’s rhyming version, which maintains a beautifully literary quality that co-exists with the immediacy of everyday speech,  is rendered with great clarity by all the cast. Harrison has long been  convinced of the power in rhythm and rhyme and the way in which these forms hold the attention and open the imagination, almost like song. The cyclical nature of rhyming couplets draws you in and never lets go. Harrison both works with this structure and against it, in a ceaseless creative play with form that is both true to Molière’s spirit and engagingly new.

Alceste, the play’s central character, a slave to his passionate rejection of society’s hypocrisies, hates the human race. There is something of the adolescent’s terrible teens in his relentless accusations. But his vulnerability, not least to the undermining tugs of jealousy, makes him an all too human and at times contradictory figure. This is not an easy part to play, and while Simon Armstrong brings to it a great deal of vigour and charm, a great sense of comic timing and some of the nuancing which the character requires, he does not quite pull it off. Further down the play’s three-week run, he may find the resources to go beyond what remains at this early stage a bravado performance in need of greater depth.

The other characters, all of them foils and satellites to Alceste’s tormented rantings, display, to various extents, the faults which drive the misanthropic anti-hero wild: Philip Buck’s reasonable and empathetic Philinte and Daisy Douglas’s gentle Eliante come closest to feeling for Alceste. Byron Mondahl (Oronte) shines in a virtuoso comic performance, riding a camped-up roller-coaster from self-inflation to abject disillusion. Célimène is everyone’s love-interest, a sharp-tongued monster of beauty, charm and duplicity. That Alceste should be so much in love with her provides one of the play’s most appealing contradictions. Dorothea Myer-Bennett captures a great deal of the character’s repartie-driven zest and superficiality, and when Célimène does, finally yet fleetingly, allow herself to feel, Myer-Bennett delivers a touching moment that is the play’s exception to the bitch, boast and gossip rule. The most accomplished – both hilarious and spine-tingling – performance comes from Lucy Black as Arsinoé, dressed uptight in her Chanel look-alike suit, a blistering portrayal of an insecure middle-aged woman who uses her tongue in defence of her fading looks.

For The Misanthrope is very much a play about the human weaknesses we all share.: a deep insecurity regarding the opinions of others and our status in society which drives us to play out endless charades and criticize others behind their backs, all in order to avoid a few moments of introspection. The central irony of the play lies in Alceste’s own addiction to a spiel which enables him to feel better about himself – although he is still pretty miserable. Andrew Hilton’s production fizzes with life and while it does not have quite the intimacy that he has achieved in the round at the Tobacco Factory, the extension of the stage into the stalls brings the actors and the play close to the audience.  In “Uncle Vanya”, Hilton’s Bristol Old Vic production last year, there was a sense in which something of the director’s signature strengths had been lost within the constraints of a more conventional space This time around, he has mastered the challenge. This is an immensely enjoyable show – and a disturbing one too: without doubt a comedy, but one which expresses some of the inevitable and so tragic contradictions of human condition.