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The Literati


Griffin Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare present THE LITERATI, by Justin Fleming after Moliere’s LES FEMMES SAVANTES, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 27 May- 16 July.

THE LITERATI, is an adaptation by Australian writer Justin Fleming, of Moliere’s LES FEMMES SAVANTES, presented in a co-production by Bell Shakespeare – a company dedicated to texts of classic heritage – and the Griffin Theatre Company – Sydney’s company dedicated to present new Australian work.

Moliere was the stage name of Jean Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673), an actor, and the author of a series of comedies that has some regard him as one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western Literature. The French King, Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, became the sponsor of the Moliere company, which became the Troupe du Roi (The King’s Troupe), playing in the Theatre du Palais-Royal. The plays are comedies that dared to critique, satirise, the excesses of his society. The audiences responded with alacrity to the outrage of the perceptive lampooning of the hypocrisies of the society, and the company weathered, with the personal protection of the King, the attacks and wrath of the targeted bureaucratic/bourgeois authorities. The best of a prolific output are probably, THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (1662), TARTUFFE (1664), THE MISANTHROPE (1666), THE MISER (1668) and THE IMAGINARY INVALID (1673).

Justin Fleming is a veteran Australian writer with plays of his own, including: THE COBRA (1982), HAROLD IN ITALY (1989), BURNT PIANO (1998), HIS MOTHER’S VOICE (2008), as well as commissioned translations of Moliere’s works: THE HYPOCRITE or TARTUFFE (2006), THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (2008), and now THE LITERATI (2016).

Lee Lewis, the Director of THE LITERATI, Directed for Bell Shakespeare, the Justin Fleming adaptation of THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES, and Peter Evans, the new Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare, Directed Mr Fleming’s TARTUFFE, for the Bell company and earlier for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), in the not too distant past. This joint production, then, a natural and familiar fit, for both Artistic Directors and Companies, after its work out at a reading for The Lysicrates Prize, Directed by Gale Edwards in 2015, revealed its potential in front of an audience.

Ms Lewis in her Director’s Notes tells us that Mr Fleming

… has become an Australian adaptor, interpreter, suggester and massager of Moliere’s original works to such an extent that, while remaining faithful to Moliere’s structures and stories, he is creating Australian versions that speak directly to an Australian audience about our own foibles here and now. These are not versions written for a relationship with a French audience. These are not versions that belong on the British stage or The American stage. They belong here.

And true to form, THE LITERATI, has all the hallmarks of the other two adaptations of Moliere’s works from the pen (computer?) of Mr Fleming: an intricacy of rhyming couplets and an outrageous proficiency of good old ‘ocker’ vocabulary, in his ‘Aussie’ contemporary conceit of the original, that is often audacious in its usage and forces a comic response that is as much a resultant ‘shock’ – shock of the new? – as it is of wit. The plot concerns, as usual, the thwarted marriage aspirations of a young lady of family, by her family that is caught up in the pretensions of a particular extreme. In the case of THE LITERATI: the literary obsessions and excesses of the women of the family and their unreasonable and deluded adoration of a poet, in this version ‘ockerfied’ in nomenclature as Tristan Tosser (the level of comic invention, signalled).

The performance is in two acts over a two hour and twenty minute length (including interval), and in truth, one begins to weary of the literary ploys of the adaptation, and one wonders, as well, if it is because the source concerns of LES FEMMES SAVANTES, are relatively trivial for us, including the parental approval for marriage, and hence may lack the heft to sustain our interest over its length. Stand this play alongside TARTUFFE, a play dealing with religious hypocrisy, and it pales in contemporary significance (though, if it had opened a week or two earlier, before or during the Sydney Writers Festival, and it may – just – have had some more relevance as a joke of such extension).

The original has some 13 characters to create the circumstances of the comedy. In Mr Fleming’s adaptation he has reduced (and combined) Moliere’s needs to make up a cast of 9 to suit his dramaturgical needs, and then has, with the Director, Ms Lewis, made it possible that 4 of the 5 actors play double roles: Philomela/Vadius – a combined ‘invented’ character (Caroline Brazier), Amanda/Attorney (Kate Mulvany), Christopher/Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould), Juliet/Martina (Miranda Tapsell). – while, the poet, Tristan Tosser, is the only responsibility of the 5th performer, Gareth Davies.

This doubling has some comic repercussions, calling on the actors for a lively versatility and a tremendous olympian energy of focus and discipline. Mr Oxenbould makes his double task a joy of invention and mines a conscious sense of the in-joke for his audience, with his task culminating in an hilarious ‘cap-on, cap-off’ delineation of character to sustain a conversation between his two men whilst dextrously managing the revolve floor of the production design. Ms Brazier does next best with her hair-raising timings for entrances and exits, with a dialect definition, accompanied with a waft of shawl or jacket and spectacles (or not) for her double duty. Whilst, Ms Tapsell makes heavy weather of her double, being significantly, less convincing as Juliet, the thwarted bride-to-be, her principal responsibility – standing in a white frilly dress with her hands always in a ‘stylised’ position with her usual and recognisable wide or crinkle-eyed demeanour to charm us (or not) while reciting the text, it, becoming more and more, calamitously, an obstacle to/for her task, whereas, on the other hand, being absolutely comfortable and winning with her sensible, grounded servant/termagant, Martina – which is, unfortunately, a less crucial role in the dramaturgy of this play’s function, for Martina was genuinely funny, in contrast to her Juliet. Ms Mulvany, in her doubling act, is principally occupied with Amanda, the elder, unhappy daughter of the house, and has created a focused full force (loud) comic caricature of unceasing energy, that propels Mr Fleming’s machinery unflaggingly forward, if a little colourlessly – it being a relatively, strident two-note offer – it lacks nuance or truthful empathy (truthful revelations), and becomes exhaustedly predictable in comic choice and less and less engaging from entrance to entrance, beyond the well drawn repeated physical charcteristics and theatrical energy. Ms Mulvany’s Attorney, her other task, is brief and is as efficiently defined as her Amanda.

This task of doubling has some comic possibilities and the company strives fairly successfully to achieve them, but one wonders if a cast of 9 actors, with nine different physical energies and imaginative offers, instead of just 5, would have relieved some of the growing tediousness of the ‘playing’ length of the work (it reminded me of my concerns with the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Caryl Churchill’s LOVE AND INFORMATION, last year). Either give us a full cast of nine actors (probably, one of the reasons that the Bell Shakespeare’s production of TARTUFFE was a much more rewarding night in the theatre was the number of different energies of a much larger casting), or edit the play text down to a more succinct and less exposing 90 minutes.

That this is a co-production between two ‘funded’ companies, the Bell Shakespeare and the Griffin, one wonders: is it that their combined budget resources prohibits such a casting possibility? Is it that we have 3 actors paid by Bell, 2 actors paid by Griffin? Or….? Together, is it that they could only afford 5 actors? I believe this production is relatively ‘crippled’ in its success because of the limited casting choice by the two producing companies. If, it is true that economics is the ‘fly-in-the-ointment’ reasoning of the choice that Mr Fleming has given in providing the opportunity of double casting, maybe some re-writing, editing, could have solved the problem of the diminishing ‘returns’ in the comic experience of the evening, over 140, or so, minutes.

The Design, which includes a small revolve is heavily weighted in visual terms and keeps the work a little earth-bound and clumsy for the actors to negotiate (Sophie Fletcher) – let alone the audience’s safety issues to get to one’s seats – and the Lighting Design (Verity Hampson) is simply serviceable. The Music Composition by Max Lambert and Roger Lock – a kind of ‘rich’ period-sound tunefulness and orchestration, matched with some comic mood underlinings, it works very well. The costumes are contemporary-practical in their production’s need for quick transformations.

THE LITERATI satire has jokes of all kinds for most of us, just not for all of us, at the same time. I particularly chortled, early, to one of Christopher’s speeches to his daughter, Amanda, about the proliferation and pretensions of writer’s:

They seem to pop up everywhere, as if we somehow breed them;
With so many people writing, it’s a wonder there’s anyone to read them.
And there are people who cannot write, re-writing writers who could
And giving us appalling versions of works that used to be good.
And there are some ingenious non-writers, of whom I’m sure you’ve heard,
Who can adapt a foreign writer, in whose language they don’t know a word.

The writer and proffered suitor of the piece has been adapted to be called Tristan Tosser, and Gareth Davies preens and poses with a performer’s relish for what I, belatedly, guessed to be closely observed mimicry, and it is wickedly hilarious to watch his ‘schtick’ – for we have seen most of these comic offers before – and when there is a hint that it is maybe only a stone’s throw from a loving set of physical and vocal quotations based around a once, for some, over present artistic collaborator of the recent Belvoir team famous for his adaptation of other people’s plays, it has a special pithiness.

Ms Lewis has a vision for this work but one wonders whether her choice to slow down the music of her ‘score’ – Mr Flemings adaptation – to lay in emotional ‘depths’ to some of the characters and scenes is the right one. The comedy of Moliere and of Mr Fleming seems to be hard-nosed satiric caricature with the human animal exaggerated in his stubborn stupidity, with the clinical eye of a forensic scientist and has a ‘rage’ rather than a ‘compassion’ fuelling the tools of the exercise. The play seems to work best when it has the consistent energy and rapidity of the many, many notes of a Rossini score rather than the lugubrious weight of a sentimental Verdi score. When the musical tempo slackens in this production to find the ‘human’ depths of the characters and situations it loosens and lose’s its comic speed and allows us too much time to consider the constraints of the form of the writing style and stops us from breathlessly trying to keep up with the outrageousness of Mr Fleming’s inventions and gives us time to dwell on the artificial constructs and ‘judge’ them, to its detriment – we suspend our belief, and that can be very dangerous for a farce of words and situation – after all, we have been taught, the laughter is all in the timing.

Still, the audience I was with, mostly, enjoyed it, for many and varied reasons – I did too but got tired of it two thirds of the way through. I’d wished it was braver, rougher, rawer. (What if Steven Berkoff had got into it?- DECADENCE?!) One wonders what the commissioning of, say, the Australian Slam Poet and Novelist (HERE COME THE DOGS), Omar Musa, could do with an adaptation of Moliere, (or, even a play of his own), looking at the society, world, we are living in. One admires Mr Fleming’s language dexterity but one wonders whether his Australianess in his ‘ocker’ language and joke-territory, its ‘mode’, is of a yester-year and more conventional than otherwise, with hardly a finger on the pulse of the contemporary hip-verbal idiom and situations.

Let us commission Mr Musa to write an Australian work with a political and literary explosiveness for TODAY? I wonder what we could have – a work as arresting as say, the American sensation, HAMILTON!?