Exchange Theatre, 26 June 2016
Moliere is the French Shakespeare, of course. According to the French.
The two playwrights were writing at different ends of the seventeenth century and were much admired in their own lifetimes, but it is difficult to see what else they have in common. The vast, protean inventiveness of Shakespeare and, most particularly, his ability to robe the keenest felt human experiences in the noblest language ever written appears, at least to his writer, absent in Moliere. Indeed, in his withering attacks on the manners of the day and general naughtiness, Moliere has perhaps a greater kinship with Aristophanes than Shakespeare.
It is perhaps for these reasons, plus, doubtless, a liberal helping of national chauvinism, that Moliere is relatively unperformed in this country. It wasn’t until the early years of the twentieth century that a full English translation of his plays was written. Productions are still hard to come by. In the 1960s, Laurence Olivier reportedly said to an American actor about to play the title role in The Miser that Moliere was “as funny as a baby’s open grave” – the great man once more demonstrating his boundless generosity of spirit to other actors.
Exchange Theatre, whose production of The Doctor in Spite of Himself (Le Médicin Malgré) opened on June 21 at the Drayton Arms to coincide with the Bastille Festival, sets about correcting this neglect. It has, moreover, a dual mission: to perform plays in both English and French. So, employing a multi-lingual cast, the play is delivered in English one night and French the next.
The company has also provided a new translation of the play, so the production is ambitious in several ways. However, while setting sights high is a noble objective, there is also more scope for failure and it has to be said that this production succeeds only on a relatively limited number of levels.
The Doctor in Spite of Himself is also one of Moliere’s least known plays. It marks a return to broad force after the poor reception to The Misanthrope, which is now seen as one his more sophisticated works. It is also a scathing satire on the hypocrisy of the medical profession, in which complete lack of knowledge and skill is hidden by pompous procedures and language.
At the beginning of this modern-dress production we find Sganarelle, a drunken and ill-paid carpenter, arguing with his much put-upon wife Martine and the dispute descends into a bit of light spousal abuse. Seeing her chance for revenge, Martine tells two servants who seek a doctor for their mistress Geronte that her husband is a brilliant doctor but won’t admit it unless he is beaten up a bit; so there’s a bit more violence.
Not wishing to be knocked about any more, Sganarelle confesses he possesses medical skills and essays the task Geronte has for him: to get her daughter Lucinde to overcome her mysterious muteness. Encouraged by the vast amounts of money he is offered, fancying Geronte and fascinated by her maid Jacqueline’s vast breasts, Sganarelle decides this is much better gig than being a carpenter and accepts the job.
Of course, he does the job much better than a real doctor, discovers that Lucinde is only playing dumb to escape a forced marriage. The good times don’t last long, however, and his deception is discovered. About to be executed, the situation is recovered by the deus ex machina, a device much loved by Moliere, and all ends happily.
The original production, first performed in 1666, had musical interludes which here take the form of hip-hop and rock numbers. These generally work well and the whole thing rolls along at a good pace, though the vitality slackens in the second half.
There are numerous breaches of the fourth wall, as when an actor in the audience tells Sganarelle to stop beating his wife. Neither husband nor wife are happy with this interference in their domestic arrangements, Martine telling her ‘It is my wish to be beaten.” It must have sounded OK in 1666.
David Furlong as Sganarelle, who also directs, has strong presence and manages the unlikely feat of making the imaginary doctor seems a bit of a cheeky chappie rather than a drunken wife-beater. Without this legerdemain it is difficult to see how this play could succeed on any level except as the darkest of dark comedies.
He is generally, though not universally, well-supported by the rest of the cast. Particularly worthy of note is Matt Mella as Lucas, who has delicious and brave comic timing. He’s also helped by having completely unaccented English. Leo Elso does a nice job as both Geronte’s servant Valère and then Léandre, the lover preferred by Lucinde, while Anita Adam Gabay as the mute Lucinde has the most vividly expressive eyes.
Sometimes, however, the acting is a little flaccid, particularly when Yanouchka Wenger Sabbatini as Geronte is on stage. But she’s not the only offender. Farce has to be done at lively pace and, while a bit larger than life it has to be utterly truthful to the situation, however ridiculous. The moment an actor takes even the littlest step back from committing completely and with great energy to the life on stage, the balloon begins to deflate. This happens too much.
Some of the visual gags are over-worked, and one scene change is both noisy and interminable. These might run more smoothly later in the run.
There is also a perhaps unintentionally comic aspect to the evenings when the play is spoken in English. With randy doctors, busty maids and French accented English we could sometimes be in an episode of “’Allo, ‘Allo”.
Reverence for the writer is evident throughout the production. In the second half, Martine appears only briefly but always carrying or reading a volume of Moliere’s plays. Why she does so is a different question. It seems to serve no dramatic purpose.
The Doctor In Spite of Himself is a short play; the performance at Drayton Arms lasts only 75 minutes, which is one of its principal virtues. It’s a rarely performed play and there are some good ideas and nice performances. You also get to brush up on your French if you go on one of the French evenings. But Olivier probably had it right.