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The Hypocrite

MTC: The Melbourne Theatre Company, a department of the University of Melbourne present THE HYPOCRITE, a new version of Moliere's TARTUFFE by Justin Fleming.

I have to declare that I have never been a fan of Moliere. Either the verse translations or just simply, perhaps, the plots and characters always kind of bored me. (The STC Bourgeois Gentleman, a year or so ago was so horrible that I had sworn never to go again to a Moliere play.) So I attended the MTC production, the other evening, with no expectations. However, I had a wonderfully delightful time. My fellow audience companions did as well.

I feel that the director Peter Evans has such a secure hand on this work from all areas of his collaborators, that that assurance permeated the whole event. This text has been both translated and adapted by Justin Fleming, commissioned by the Company. It is thoroughly outrageous and delightful, often, all at once. The vulgarisms of the version, set in both a quasi period and contemporary setting and costume, bestrides such a breadth of cheeky and anachronistic daring that I was disarmed and often left gasping with surprise and mirth.

The world of the play, witty and elegant design by Stephen Curtis, reminded of the new money of that late 80’s ABC documentary series SYLVANNIA WATERS. A kind of ugly and naive brashness and security of bad taste, that is lived unselfconsciously and happily by all. This household was oblivious of its ostentatious lifestyle. They have the money and no real taste. They aspire to the inspiration of the fashionable world and if they want that white plastic garden chair and that designer armoire in the same room with nineteen different kinds of chandeliers, they can. And isn’t it gorgeous!!?

So from the moment Dorine, the maid (Mandy Mc Elhinney) opens with the Australian budgerigar bird vocal pitch supported by all the other vocal characterisations of the company: Madame Pernelle (a delicious Kerry Walker) Mariane (Sara Gleeson), and especially an outrageous Damis (Chris Ryan) you have a world of musical sounds to operate in. And Mr Fleming goes for broke in supplying the words to fill this very familiar world.Seldom have I succumbed to such unabashed vulgarity. I have read debate about the verse liberties and the “failure” of this or that in “the form”, Mr Fleming has constructed the text in, but, in the doing and hearing of it, in this company’s relish of the mouthing and playing with it, it works as a very surprising treat. It did last night (Tuesday).

Garry McDonald as the blind sighted “rich sucker” Orgon creates a character of such glorious vocal, physical and psychological skill that one is left in a state of awe. Take the witty costume of a lime green “period” coat, with thigh high laced boots, beige breeches and a wig that recalled the bouffant hysteria of Gary Oldman’s Dracula, crowning Mr McDonald’s scalp, then, you have a picture of challenge that needs to be met with comic invention to master that visual affect. Mr McDonald subdues it all. He and his creativity is why you are there. The costume is merely a clue, a support ,an accoutrement to what is to follow.

All in all, there is hardly a false decision made by any of this company. Nicholas Bell in the notoriously difficult role of the straight man Cleante, Marina Prior in a tour de force comic struggle as Elmire with Tartuffe, the delicate timing and wit of Ashley Zuckerman as Valere, James Wardlaw, Martin Sharpe, Bert LaBonte are all part of a wonderful ensemble. Kim Gyngell as Tartuffe is marvellous in the “oily” choices of his hypocrite. The vocal well pronounced sounds combined with the elegance of delivery is so perfect and yet, and yet something is not quite right. Is it the physicality? Does it alter the rhythm and so the timing of some of his task? Is it musically too contrapuntal to the rest of the score? I have not been able to put my finger on it. Whatever it is (someone might be able to clarify for me) it is only slightly remarkable.

The Set design is both provoking and witty, the trap of it for me, is that it remains to static a picture, although the lighting design is attractive and in motion throughout the temperatures of the scenes. (Matt Scott) The costumes are all a delight. (If only there could have been some changes to keep the visuals alive – budget perhaps.) The composer (Ian McDonald) has written a score that has the exact “spunk”, elan, for the tone of the evening and Mr LaBonte is pleasant as the musician with the scene interludes that are so stylishly economic in their timing, mood and rendering.

So, all of this felicity comes down to the choices and judgements of the director,Peter Evans. It is all handled with the right strokings of vulgarity and yet with a sustained and delicate, elegant sensibility and restraint. In all areas the translation, the design elements and the guiding of the acting. This is a very impressive and wonderful time in the theatre. Ta, muchly. It almost whets my appetite for more Moliere.

This, interestingly, is Melbourne’s second mounting of this play, this year. Two companies, two professional productions, two companies of actors, two translations. How wonderfully European of this city. Where ART can be discussed with recent comparison. Where learning the play is not the only preoccupation for the audience. How cosmopolitan.