Review: The Misanthrope
Venue: York Theatre Royal, May 21
The Misanthrope is the poet Roger McGough’s third adaptation of a Moliere play for the English Touring Theatre and, like all great classics, it is as relevant now as when it was first performed in Paris in 1666.
Opening with the slow illumination of a gorgeous rococo sitting room, we encounter a suburban gathering of periwigged and powdered fops and foppettes, resplendent in the most fashionable couture, who then gossip the night away whilst dancing a little masked jig or two to a Michael Nyman inspired piece by the composer Peter Coyte (presumably, the budget wouldn’t run to the maestro himself).
The set, and especially the lighting, is nothing less than sumptuous – it’s like watching a pink macaroon all night.
Alceste, the misanthrope of the title, is scathing of the fripperies of the shallow elite he finds himself among in a Paris salon and, refusing to be fashionably polite, he proceeds to call a spade a spade all night long until a rancid poet (the kind you can hear in any open mic night in downtown York on a Tuesday evening) takes exception to the insults hurled at him and threatens our hero with libel.
Alceste cares little for this vacuous taunt but, when his friends forsake him for more comfortable but temporary company, he sets about cooing and wooing the glamorous Celemine (played by the rather wonderful Zara Tempest-Walters) who, it turns out, has been writing love letters to every silly and impressionable young man in town.
When Alceste says he will forgive her if only she will marry him and run away with him to an idyllic country retreat, she is having none of it and so Alceste, forever the misanthrope, leaves the glittering ball and High Society behind for the endless night of exile which is the existential lot of every human being – if only the fops and foppettes would actually stop ejaculating the 18th century equivalentof OMG!! and stand still long enough to realise this and look around at the wonders which surround us all, day in day out.
The Misanthrope, who is really the universal Everyman, then closes the door on the dance as he leaves the stage and the play ends.
Within this comedy of manners McGough, courtesy of Moliere himself, lets loose a cornucopia of delights – not least of which are the endless puns made possible by mixing Scouse (McGough’s native tongue, of course) with pantomime gimmicks which, the night I was there, seemed to be much appreciated by the threadbare and elderly audience.
Alison Pargeter, who plays Eliante like a cross between Little Miss Muffit and Barbara Windsor at her Carry On best, is an absolute delight to watch, but why oh why does Neil Caple, who plays the part of Dubois, Alceste’s bungling footman, insist upon playing the Yorkshire accent for laughs? Surely I’m not the only one who is sick and tired of the thick Northener, this cheap, unintelligent, stale old stereotype which, as he is someone who has acted with Northern Broadsides in the past, Mr Caple has no excuse whatsoever for doing.
Why was his the only Northern accent in a play set in pre-revolutionary France? Ditching the Tyke-for-Laughs gimmick, which comes across as a tad on the colonial side to me, would improve things no end.
Still, the sugary, golden and indulgent false elegance of wealth and no brains really did bring to mind the swivel-eyed loons of Escrick and the hinterlands of Dingley Dell. I would not have been at all surprised to witness the doe-eyed Sam Cam making her dramatic debut as an extra in this highly entertaining and thought provoking play which, when all is said and done, really does anticipate some of the central concerns in The Great Gatsby two centuries and another continent later.
I left the Theatre Royal on a bit of a high and ran all the way home to catch the penultimate episode of Shameless, where Frank Gallagher really, really, really is the most fabulous example of a Misanthrope in contemporary culture.
I can almost hear his Mancunian whine repeating the words Alceste speaks about “the selfish times we live in” and making do with the crumbs from the table. If you get a chance to see the English Touring Theatre – and they are often in York – then behave like a rat up that gutter to the Theatre Royal box office for a ticket. You will not be disappointed.