The Literati by Justin Fleming, after Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes, is Griffin Theatre Company’s latest masterpiece performing at the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross. Not since Holding The Man and The Boys have we seen a production that is so astonishingly good it beggars belief.
The Literati has brought together two of Sydney’s great theatre powerhouses, Griffin and the Bell Shakespeare Company, to produce a work of immense linguistic dexterity and poignancy. And the man dubbed with being the father of Australian theatre, John Bell, and his entire family were in the audience on opening night to witness history being made – again.
Bell and his thespian cohorts gave rise to a wave of new Australian theatre in the 1970s in this very same theatre, although it was then known as the Nimrod Theatre. Out of the ashes of that movement came the Griffin Theatre Company, which has resided at the Stables Theatre for nearly 40 years and has been and will always be Australia’s new writing theatre.
Les Femmes Savantes is a comedy by Molière in five acts, written in verse. A satire on academic pretension, female education, and preciosity, it was one of his most popular comedies and premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal on 11 March 1672.
Fleming’s modern adaptation of the script is a dazzling display of cunning linguistics and biting satire. In the program notes, Fleming says that:
The Literati is many things, not least a piss-take on pretentious literary conceit, and as I approach the work, I always kept in mind some of the gushing hyperbole that passes for writers’ festivals and book clubs both on television and off. In this vein, the play had a modern resonance, which I was eager to capture.
Molière’s rhyming couplets throughout his work were well known to his audiences, but how to make this accessible for audiences today? Fleming goes on to describe his approach to patterns of language, for instances when a scene is lofty pretentiousness the rhyming couplet is (AABB), when the subject is love, the rhymes are on alternate lines (ABAB). And for wisdom and true scholarship, the rhymes fall on the first and fourth lines, and the second and third lines (ABBA).
It’s a tried and tested method, first seen in Fleming’s masterful adaptation of Tartuffe. Here, in The Literati, it is used to magnificent affect, mind-whirlingly so. It is quite staggering the pace of the lines at times and the cast all delight in the tounge-twisting challenges Fleming throws at them.
But far from distracting our attention, the rhythms give access to themes that are hard hitting and as relevant today as they were in the 17th Century. While Fleming remains faithful to Molière’s structure and story, he is also creating an Australian version that speaks directly to an Australian audience about our own foibles here and now.
The production’s director, Lee Lewis, is in total command of the demands of this comedy and complexity of the rhythmic language and has created a singular modern and elegant world, artfully designed by Sophie Fletcher, on this tiny apex stage that defies the limits of the space. A central variable speed revolve is almost always in motion in keeping with the ever changing dynamics of the plot and development of characters. Special mention to Verity Hampson’s lighting design which is masterful in such a challenging space. And to Max Lambert and Roger Lock for creating music and sound design so appropriate with a deliciously Australian flavour to it.
The cast are, without doubt, exceptional, not a miscast member amongst them. They are incredibly funny, erudite, and mesmerising to watch.
Kate Mulvany as the bookish and snobby eldest daughter, Amanda, is pure delight as she clowns across the uneven stage in high heels that are way to high. She inhabits a prudish and judgmental world that no one could possibly compete with as she jeers and sneers at everyone around her, except perhaps her pretentious mother Philomena who is so wonderfully portrayed by Caroline Brazier. Tall, lanky and so commanding, Brazier also doubles as the character of Vadius, a professor of literature who is the antithesis of pretension and is the voice of reason throughout the play.
This device of doubling characters is used several more times and to great dramatic and comic effect. Miranda Tapsell elegantly plays the innocent younger daughter who’s love interest is the amiable but prospect-less Clinton played by Jamie Oxenbould. Both also double; Tapsell is the earthy and mouthy kitchen maid, Martina, and Oxenbould plays Christopher, the hapless and defeatist husband of Philomena.
There is an excruciatingly hilarious scene in act two where Oxenbould flits backwards and forwards between his characters with the simple act of pulling on and off his baseball hat, all the while the revolve getting faster as he walks, then runs with the revolve and against it as his character flips back and forth – and then there is all the rhyming language being shot at us. It was a moment of sheer acting and directing brilliance that left the audience rolling in the aisles and erupting into rapturous applause.
The final character of Tristan Tosser, played beautifully by Gareth Davies, is as his surname suggests the epitome of the foppish, fay and pretentious poet who sucks in Amanda and Philomenia with his delusions about social status and the pursuit of a pure artistic life. Everyone else can see his ulterior motives and it amounts to a contest between empty words and the true nature of love.
There was a most deserved standing ovation at the end of the show and the intimacy of this fabulous space only adding to the intensity of the performance.
This production of The Literati is a great testament to a tremendously successful collaboration between two cornerstone theatre companies, but it is also a wonderful homage to John Bell and reminds us all of the legacy of new Australian theatre and a national classical theatre company that he has bequeathed to Australian audiences for well over half a century.