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REVIEW: The School For Wives | Playhouse, Sydney

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. You probably know him better as Moliere. He was very nearly a contemporary of Shakespeare, coming hot on the Bill’s heels, around six years after the Bard shuffled off this mortal coil. It hardly needs to be said that Moliere, an actor as well as writer, was (and is) to comedy as Shakespeare was (and is) to drama: one of the greatest to ever grace Western literature. Bell Shakespeare’s production of The School Of Wives, directed by Lee Lewis, is one, I’m sure, Moliere would’ve jubilated in.

Recklessly self-indulgent and all the more entertaining for it, all involved conspire to play the characters as parodically as inhumanly possible. Justin Fleming’s translation and adaptation is the lubricant, balancing Moliere’s incisive sarcasm against the brutal evocations of contemporary Australian vernacular, like a beach ball on the nose of a dexterous seal. Phrases attaching to the latter make themselves well-known, sticking out like the proverbial canine testicles. “I hope your ears turn to arseholes and shit on your shoulders” could only really come from one geographical source. And it’s not Paris. The fact that, even in English, he manages such deft rhyming couplets, defies the mere mortal.

It’s extraordinary to think Moliere would’ve been so intent on comprehensively mocking the arrogant foibles of his own gender in the mid-to-late 17th century, when L’ecole des femmes premiered, at the Palais Royal, on Boxing Day 1662 before the king’s brother. Seems like risky business to me. Obviously, it goes down a treat today; hopefully an era in which men can laugh as loud as women, albeit at themselves.

John Adam is Arnolde, a well-heeled narcissist who sees fit to grant himself a new name, since he’s never liked Arnolde. He becomes Monsieur de la Souche, which sounds impressive, but which in no way serves to lessen the intimidation he feels where women are concerned. Unprepared to meet them on an equal footing, he’s connived to take the upper hand by a sleight of hand: he’s fixed on wedding and bedding the young girl he’s had stashed away in a convent school since early childhood, at which time he took on her guardianship. He sees it as a foolproof formula for wedded bliss (his) and confides he’s dastardly plan in his best mate, Chris (Damien Richardson). The girl, Agnes (Harriett Dyer), knows nothing of this, until such time as he recalls her from her cloistered existence and begins to drop subtle (or not so subtle) hints as to his intentions to entrap her into marriage.

It’s sobering to see Adam send de la Souche up with such gusto and skill and it makes one wonder how many televisual soap and drama actors are hiding their light under a bushel while earning a decent living. It begs the question: why only call upon 10% of one’s prowess for a regular cheque when one could be consistently challenged, as a starving stage performer? (Whoops. Maybe Moliere’s mocking attitude has rubbed off on me.)

The point is, Adam is extravagantly good, as are all his co-stars. In point of fact, it’s one of the best ensembles one could hope for; as producer, director, or punter. Dyer, for example, is a divinely comical confection; every vocal affectation, roll of the eyes and sideways glance measured and purposeful. I’ve waxed lyrically, publicly and privately, about the up-and-coming prodigy that’s Meyne Wyatt and here, as Agnes’ enthusiastic lover, Horace, he consolidates his reputation; he has an athletic litheness to his idiosyncratic carriage and radiates an energy all his own. There are other raptures besides.

Andrew Johnston’s Alan (one of de la Souche’s faithful, much abused servants) is a shameless reprise, to a large extent, of Manuel (Fawlty Towers) and as gobsmackingly well-executed. The appropriation couldn’t be more appropriate. Alexandra Aldrich is arguably even better, as Alan’s wife Georgette. With her pancake, china doll make-up, she may look like a painted lady or as if auditioning for a lead role in Cabaret, but the clownish appearance is very apt, given her propensities, especially for physical comedy. There are strong contributions, too, from Richardson and Jonathan Elsom (his caricatures, of a waiter and notary call upon every relevant comic device and exploit them masterfully).

Mark Jones is the first person we see on stage. Dressed in tails and siting down at an upright piano, he provides a live soundtrack of a kind which pays not-so-oblique homage to silent movies and foley men. Lewis has been naughty enough to be completely candid about his presence: he becomes implicated in the action in various ways and, later, becomes a proper part of it, as Laurence, Horace’s father and de la Souche’s friend.

Marg Horwell’s design deserves and commands particular attention. It’s both eclectic and droll, incorporating everything from a faux castle wall, a la Romeo and Juliet, to a steel frame that serves as the windscreen of a vintage car, behind which sits a begoggled driver, with requisite cap. To complete this scene, footage of road disappearing into the distance references countless Hollywood movies uproariously.

Lewis has evidently poured heart, soul and every other resource at her beck and call into this work. It is brimming with ideas; from throwaway interpolations of Leighton Hewitt mannerisms into an especially playful scene involving tennis, to the second act being introduced with a clapper-board.

As an aside, it’s piquant to note that I know of no objections in tampering with or tweaking Moliere’s text, yet reworking of a scene in Belvoir’s Death Of A Salesman created such righteous indignation. Discuss.

Meanwhile, if you miss any chance to see Bell’s Moliere, you’re depriving yourself of theatre that’s almost better than sex.

The details: The School Of Wives is at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until November 24. Tickets on the venue website.

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    Ian Holder
    Posted November 4, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I saw it up here in Newcastle and similarly highly recommend it; one of the best plays, and best performances by all the cast, I have seen for a long time.

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