Comedy is traded for camp in Bell Shakespeare’s adaptation of The Miser, says Robert Reid
At some point during the first act of Bell Shakespeare’s The Miser, the household servant La Fleche (Sean O’Shea), describes Harpagon, the titular miser, as “Shylock without the laughs”. I feel that it’s not a bad description of the play itself. While a constant titter runs through the audience and there are smaller bursts of expectation, more than anything it’s the laughter of people who want to find something funny.
But it’s not really. Instead, comedy is traded for camp, which leaves the performances feeling ungrounded. Granted, there’s no real room for deep psychological character study in Molière’s work; but this ungroundedness isn’t helped by the endless mugging at the audience and attempts to draw us in with winks and nods, or actors following jokes by asking: “Was that funny? No?”
Molière’s original follows a structure familiar from many of his other works and from the Commedia dell’arte in general. A greedy, rich old widower, Harpagon (John Bell), attempts to make a second marriage for himself with the young, attractive and financially promising Marianne (Elizabeth Nabben). At the same time as he is arranging the marriage of his daughter Élise (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) to another rich old man all the while unknowingly competing with his own son Cléante (Damien Strouthos), for the affections of the fair Marianne. The original relies on stock characters – the old man, the lovers, the servants – as was the style of the time. This new adaptation, by Justin Fleming, is faithful enough to this. The servants conspire with the young lovers against the designs of the old man and every thing works out happily in the end.
It seems to me that there’s an opportunity here to draw out themes of undermining the patriarchy that, while implied by the story, are rather lost in the adaptation’s anxiousness to colloquialise idioms and redraw the characters as Australian nouveau riche. The new text (Fleming’s fifth Molière adaptation) is un-funny in the way that Molière and Shakespeare are so often also un-funny – which puts Fleming in good company at least. Neither the language, the jokes not the rhythm suit a contemporary sensibility.
The translation awkwardly attempts to straddle two worlds: the foppish mannerisms and unhappy social structures of France and a cashed-up bogan Australian sensibility that feels like a throwback to the early ‘80s. The worlds clash for me: the courtliness of Louis XIV’s France, which is meant to be skewered by Molière’s satire, feels like it would be quickly overturned by the stereotypical ocker boldness of the adaptation.
While we’re on the adaptation, we must address the rhyming. Oh god, the egregious rhyming. Almost no one on stage manages to stick the rhyming verse without making it feel sing song and drawing attention to the rhymes themselves. They land as if in doggerel or a limerick. It makes the text opaque and it draws the actors away from their clarity. It’s particularly irritating since The Miser is one of Molière’s works that doesn’t lean on rhyming couplets throughout. Only Bell himself really manages to carry off the meter and scansion without losing his character or the sense of the text.
Bell plays Harpagon as a grouchy and grotty old man, curmudgeonly with his children and his subordinates, foolish in front of his paramour, arse scratching, fart smelling and nose picking. These are all jokey details that are common to Molière, of course, but should serve to undercut a sophistication that is lacking from this production. Only Bell manages to find a voice that has depth, his decades of experience carrying him through the whirlwind of shocked gasps and outraged cries from the rest of the cast.
Tellingly, the biggest laugh seemed to me to be at the reveal of Bell in his second costume. The old man vest, braces and slippers are changed into gold lamé jacket, slicked down toupee (to give an illusion of youth) and the spangliest shoes I’ve ever seen (the shoes worn by the cast are a highlight, there are some fabulous shoes in this show). What gets the laugh here isn’t the text but the fact that the old man looks ridiculous, gaudily attired and strutting in an exaggerated imitation of youth. Which is a tricky image to parse since he’s also wearing thick glasses that Frosine (Michelle Doake) has advised he wear to show off his age, because his intended has a fetish for older men.
Harpagon’s costume change dresses him no more garishly than anyone else on stage. Anna Tregloan’s costumes are bright and colourful: they’re maybe the most entertaining thing in the show. Lovely greens and pinks and blues and lilacs flit around the gold and black stage, the Trump-like golden walls of the house and the four shiny black doors that make for the in-and-out of classic farce.
It’s not as funny as it could be because there’s zero tension to be relieved by the laughter. The stakes feel insignificant, not only because the form itself reassures us that everything will be resolved satisfactorily in the end, but also because we simply don’t care about the characters. I feel like this is mainly a failure in the adaptation; but the physical comedy is also too muted to land. Reactions aren’t big enough, the slapstick isn’t sudden enough and the stage business is unclear. Farce needs to race by, it needs to be breathless. If the pace slows even fractionally, it lets the energy out of the action and loses sight of the funny. The actors give a great deal of energy to the performance: they make attempts at Lazzi-like physical comedy, they screech and wail their lines, their diction is clear, and each makes strong choices in their characterisations; but ultimately every character is a version of aristocratic air-head.
The convoluted plots – the marriages and greed and servants conspiring with the young lovers to foil their rich old fathers – are all Molière’s signature. They could be a framework around which to build something genuinely funny and new, something that might speak to the superficiality of today’s famously wealthy. A 17th century Keeping up with the Kardashians, perhaps, or a Real Housewives of pre-Revolution Paris. The courtly manners, the rituals of social climbing, the hypocrisies of privilege are as ripe for satire today as they were in 1668. But it’s not clear when this work is set: powdered wigs share this world with iPads. Anachronism is rife, but not in such a way as to collapse time and render the observations timeless. Instead everything becomes a blur of meaningless brightly-coloured goo.
It should be noted that there are modernisations in this text that promise a new take, but which go nowhere. For instance, Valère (Jessica Tovey) is written as a woman, and the illicit affair between her and Élise is introduced immediately as the lights go up on scene one. This seems promising but adds up to little, which makes it seem like a token alteration. It would be nice to think that this is a natural development, that it increases representation of LGBTIQ+ relationships on stage without demanding they be worthy portrayals. It would be nice to think a woman in the role of Valère should go by unquestioned, that this relationship is unremarkable and so goes unremarked. Maybe it is, maybe that’s where we are now. Let’s hope…
There’s also a great deal of extraneous business between the scenes. The cast come back to stage between scenes to move set around, though they mostly pick up the aqua chaise lounge and then put it back where they found it. All this extra business recalls the farcical action and the physical humour of the original commedia. Here it does little but add minutes to an already long production.
Still, it’s not an unentertaining two and a half hours (including interval) – if you don’t ask too much of it and don’t mind some tortured rhyming verse.
The Miser, presented by Bell Shakespeare at the Fairfax Studio. By Molière, adapted by Justin Fleming. Directed by Peter Evans. Design by Anna Tregloan. Lighting by Matt Cox. Sound Design by Max Lyandvert. Movement and Fight Choreography by Nigel Poulton. Performed by John Bell, Michelle Doake, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Elizabeth Nabben, Sean O’Shea, Jamie Oxenbould, Russell Smith, Damien Strouthos and Jessica Tovey. Arts Centre Melbourne until May 12. Bookings