I hope one day to see (and understand) a Moliere play in the original French, though as I’m not doing anything about that desire except letting my scant French knowledge wither, unpracticed, for the foreseeable future I’ll have to settle for English-language adaptations. Martin Crimp’s translation of THE MISANTHROPE, now in production by Quintessence Theatre Group, transports Moliere’s satire of hypocrisy in the social mores of 17th century French aristocracy to a celebrity modern-day London. (Although Quintessence might have quite easily transported it a little further, to NYC, and avoided the distractions of dialect.)
Alceste (John Williams) is a playwright disgusted by the false flattery of the showbiz world, but jealously infatuated with the self-possessed American starlet, Jennifer (Mattie Hawkinson). Jennifer’s charms and youthful beauty also have the attention of her agent Julian (Ames Adamson, trying to channel Michael Caine), the smarmy theater critic Covington (Sean Close), and vain actor Julian (Christopher Burke).
Crimp robs Moliere’s work (or I should say, my favorite translations of it) of much of its satirical bite. Alceste’s inability to endure the hypocrisy of his society and the divided attentions of his love shape both versions, but Crimp sets the stakes much lower—bad reviews instead of arrest and disgrace. Nevertheless, Crimp created an amusing piece ideal for the light-hearted amusement of turn-of-the-century London audiences (I so wanted to see the 2009 production starring Keira Knightley).
Despite updating the setting, Crimp attempts to match Moliere’s poetry with dialog in rhyming couplets. This dated technique separates the audience from the piece, but Crimp’s rhymes are often expressive (Alceste’s philosophy on life is “never try to deceive/ and only say what you truly believe”), self-aware (on the modern world: “We’ve fucked it/ why not just sit back and deconstruct it”), and intelligent (“people will praise a pile of shit/ if they’ve dressed up and paid fifty quid for it”).
Unfortunately, director Alexander Burns has his actors too restricted by the rhymes—a line break should not always indicate a pause (or else no one could ever watch Shakespeare). William’s monologues are self-consciously broken up by every rhyme; his rhythm is more like British pop act The Streets than a natural conversation. Several actors do get it: Hawkinson uses the rhyme to enhance and guide speech, rather than interrupt it; Sonja Field is smooth as a gutter-press journalist.
But even with lower stakes and staccatoed speech, Moliere’s playful insight shines through, especially in the final scene, set at a 17th-century France fancy dress party (wink wink). This MINATHROPE isn’t Moliere at his best, it isn’t even Crimp’s version at its best, but it’s still quite fun. April 24 to May 26, 2013. quintessencetheatre.org.
THE MISANTHROPE runs in rep with a Shaw play; read Christopher Munden’s review of ARMS AND THE MAN at Quintessence.