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The School for Wives


Bell Shakespeare presents THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES – a Comedy by Moliere in The Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House.

THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (1642) was written by Moliere for performance at the French Court of King Louis XIV (the Sun King) who was the patron of Moliere’s company of actors. TARTUFFE (1664); THE MISANTHROPE (1666); and THE IMAGINARY INVALID (1673), were to follow, as the acknowledged masterpieces, amongst other works. Moliere is considered the author of some of the most popular comedies in all theatrical history. The major obstacle to the success of these plays in English is, usually, for me, the translation. For this production, the Bell Shakespeare have used a new version by Justin Fleming.

From the notes by Mr Fleming in the program:

We are lucky with the French – almost everything translates, and most of it directly. For the first stage of the process, I went to Moliere’s original French verse, and did a literal translation, line by line. For the next stage, the challenge was to find the rhythm and the rhyme which sits comfortably with contemporary Australian English, while keeping the sense of the original.

I was lucky to see and hear Mr Fleming’s version of TARTUFFE called THE HYPOCRITE, for the Melbourne Theatre Company, a few years ago, and have to say this translation/adaptation of THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES is just as mirthfully successful. Outrageous Australian vernacular and daring comic rhythms and rhymes, keep one delightfully alert and surprised. Mr Fleming’s work is the big star attraction of this production.

There are other ‘stars’, however, as well.

For, Lee Lewis, the Director, has also matched the translator’s daring-do with a shift of the time zones for the play to Paris of the 1920’s, and, with Designer, Marg Horwell, has created a visual style connected with the silent film era, inspired, perhaps, by last year’s Academy Award Best Picture, THE ARTIST. Of course, it, ‘wickedly’, fits well the general trademark look of most of Ms Lewis’ work – black and white (!) – although, there are wonderful ‘splotches’ of vivid colour in costumes, and selected visual images, projected onto the screens of the set, that are felicitously beautiful. This aesthetic of the design choices are enhanced with a very thoughtful and well prepared production – its conceits all serving the satiric comedy of Moliere, effortlessly.

The Moliere playing style is a very difficult thing to accomplish. The work of the playwright comes at the historical turning point/shift where the very physical (and mask) style of playing comedy, inherited from commedia dell ‘arte tradition, was being shifted by Moliere, to a greater balance with textual satire. The style, thus, demanding both physical and vocal clarity. It is a fine and difficult task. Incorporating the physicalities of twenties silent movie physical traditions at one extreme – substituting, mostly, the ‘commedia’ traditions – and contemporary relaxations on the other, the Movement Director of this production, Penny Baron, has achieved an elegance and restraint of body to keep this production of the play moving forward with, mostly, unobfuscated direction. It is a delight. A musical score by Kelly Ryall, played live by Mark Jones (mostly,piano and percussion), and accompanying the action on the stage alertly, is a considered part of the victory of the production. It is sympathetic and clever to the action of the playing,and the speaking.The movement suits the words, the words suit the movement.

At the matinee performance I attended, Damien Richardson gave a wonderful performance as our ridiculous protagonist, Arnolde (usually played by John Adams). I had seen Mr Richardson in THE WATER CARRIERS at the Melbourne Theatre Company and had been impressed with his work, and, although he has the ‘physical shambles’ of a Walter Matthau ‘type’ and not the ideal ‘lengthy elegance’ for what I believe this role requires, he acquitted the task demands astonishingly well.

Meyne Wyatt as the hero/ingenue type, Horace, established, further, his promising ability as an actor of the first rank (THE BROTHERS SIZE; SILENT DISCO). The lanky physicalities and body alertness (eye brow action galore!) were equally, a gift for the audience to absorb, along with his intelligent textual dexterity. Add, the growing sense of presence, watchability, and what more could one want. It is a performance of cheek and charm and confident ease.

Harriet Dyer creating the unfortunate innocent, the ‘victim’ of Arnolde’s ridiculousness, Agnes, is so true to the core ‘characteristics’ of the Moliere satire that with her slightly, crossed eyed appeals to the audience, she grows a performance that is delightfully amusing and empathetic. One sees the origins of Margery Pinchwife, THE COUNTRY WIFE, in Wycherley’s Restoration play of 1675, here, in Ms Dyer’s work, on Moliere’s heroine.The ambiguity of her actions are tantalising in their offers. (Once or twice signalling a little vulgarity!)

With these three central performances, Ms Lewis has anchored her production very, very securely. The rest of the casting is just as assured, Andrew Johnston, Alexandra Aldrich and Jonathan Elsom. Anna McCrossin-Owen, the vocal coach, has developed a mode of playing that works well to deliver the text with the physical demand of the playing style and the production idiosyncrasies. A blessing from Bell Shakespeare after the recent experience of THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, for instance.

This production is in the last week of a lengthy tour, and it still sparkled with a gentle comic ease, aesthetic elegance and witty intellectualisms, explored by Ms Lewis, in all areas of the art and crafts of the theatre, in a sophisticated contextual depth of insight for a contemporary Australian audience. Here, at last, is an Australian adaptation of a classic play that has the ring of an authentic Australian ‘voice’ for today in 2012. It has intelligence, wit and most importantly, respect, for the original writer and play.

I am not usually a Moliere fan. Clearly, however, I have become one. Perhaps, it is through the work of Justin Fleming and his vigorous translation and adaptations.

1 replies to “The School for Wives”

  1. Completely agree. Was a wonderful performance, visually exciting, and refreshing. I didn't find the Australian accent at all confusing, which sometimes can be problematic in adaptations. And performances were for the most part energetic clear and hit the mark with Moilere's verse.

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