Exchange Theatre, as part of their tenth Bastille Festival, present an updated and relocated version of Molière’s classic The Misanthrope, set in the fast-paced, back-stabbing world of broadcast media. In an age easier than ever to be both genuine and fake, Molière’s damning satire should be more pertinent than ever. Somehow, this production fails to be even historically interesting let alone contemporarily relevant.
The Misanthrope’s plot is as convoluted as it is facile, as was customary and even trademark. Molière’s original provided great humour to contemporary audiences but without real updating – requiring more than just crowbarred references to Twitter – The Misanthrope reads like a sexist, self-interested Pam Ayres poem. Why do we care about any of these characters? In short, we don’t. Not even enough to laugh at them.
The literature around the production describes Director David Furlong’s “unique touch” – and unique it must be. The production is confusing, misguided, inconsistent, overlong and, most unforgivably, not funny. Furlong is Offie-nominated and “fresh from [a] stint at the Royal Opera House” so perhaps this failure can be put down to passion project: he also plays the production’s title role.
Lots of things in the production just don’t make sense – most of which spring from the newsroom aesthetic that seems to broadcast snippets of shows (or private conversations) at complete random. Some modernising creates serious questions: if broadcasting their opinions to the nation, how can Alceste accuse his colleagues of speaking poorly of people in private? If Alceste DMs his best friend, who’s right in front of him, about how awful Oronte’s sonnet is, how can we believe Celimene sends numerous, arduous handwritten love letters? Would she not just send a snapchat of her nipple?
The yoof-ing and digitalising of the show is sloppy and unskilled, as are numerous other clunky choices. Why would characters that we see before us choose to present a scene through a mobile’s camera if not recording, broadcasting live, or at least adding cute dog ears to their faces? Why do landline phones have mobile ringtones? Why does the Apple text sound play when a clearly decommissioned Dell laptop receives an email? It all just feels very Dad.
The show – perhaps as it is presented alternately in French and English – features an awful lot of faffing, rhubarbing and international sign language. Scenes are pulled out to their fullest, yet the actual relocating of the piece has just not been unpicked. There’s no real set up of the world in which the play operates – the pre-set and opening scene serving only to obfuscate proceedings – and the whole production has a distinct air of unprofessionalism.
Each cast member is in the straitjacket of Molière’s bilious prose and verse, his incessant and petulant rhyming structure. Tripping over their lines (or sometimes forgetting them entirely), the cast themselves, rather than the characters they play, seem like the bumbling figures of the ‘fake news’ world they are aiming to critique.
As Alceste, Furlong is a compounding mixture of believable and infuriating. Alceste himself is a difficult character to get on board with, but Furling gives us no helping hand, portraying instead an incomprehensibly successful, arrogant, decidedly French Jonny English.
His love, Celimene, is played sufficiently by Anoushka Ravanshad, who maintains a remarkable dignity throughout her scheming and slut-shaming. Alceste’s right hand man, played by Simeon Oakes, perhaps handles the text best in terms of making it accessible to the modern ear, with a voice that is strong, clear and pleasant.
Eliante, Celimene’s co-host and sometime confidante, is described by characters as being pretty blah, and Fanny Dulin does a fine job at this. Her second role, as cardboard Cruella de Vil cut-out Arsione, is vaguely amusing but lacks any truth – even the truth required for comedy.
Luca Fontaine provides a refreshing – if gratingly ‘bro’ – energy to proceedings, as does James Buttling for the main, excepting two completely dumbfounding and unforgivable moments. If his own ideas, then Furlong should have stopped him. If Furlong’s ideas, he himself needs to be stopped. Palmyre Ligué’s presence is sweet but ultimately insubstantial.
The production’s set is plagued by a bizarre mixture of high and low production values. A bi-fold glass door and state of the art screen are superimposed onto a skeletal structure that zig-zags its way across the stage. The stage is segmented: a radio studio, a TV studio, a largely pointless make-up station, an office and, through some plate glass, an antechamber perfect for telenovela spying (or vomiting, in Celimene’s case). Much of the action occurs behind a (hiccup-having) vertical blind. Props are equally distressing: at this supposed ‘record breaking’ TV/radio station, why is everyone using last century’s laptops?
In contrast, costumes are generally strong, particularly those of the broadcasters. Suits and dresses are smart, attractive – bold but not too bold, interesting but not remarkable – evoking the perfect C-list news anchor celebrity brand. The gentleman’s shoes, provided by ÔSingulier(S), were small things of beauty. Alceste and Philinte’s suits were well-designed and well-fitted, leaving Clitandre and Acaste’s looking a little bodge-job in comparison. Unfortunately, Oronte and Arsinoe’s costumes focus too much on creating comedy that they forget to create real character.
The use of projection and video is easily the best executed and highest quality aspect of the production. It’s slick, convincing and immediately conveys what skip-sourced set and stumbling acting takes punts at for over two hours.
Music was used sparingly but confusingly. Tracks were abruptly cut, and one interminable scene seemed to feature the entirety of a musak, shoo-wop cover of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, completely unedited. The saving grace was the cast’s own surprisingly truthful acoustic cover of Noir Desir’s Lost – although there is a cruel irony to repeating the refrain “I’m lost but I’m not stranded yet” about a show so embattled.
The production is ill-conceived and tries to force too many square pegs into round holes – perhaps the biggest is assuming that Moliere can be funny to and in a twenty-first century world. The show is erratic, bloated and glaring with inconsistencies. By jumping on the ‘fake news’ bandwagon, the production reveals itself as unthought-out as its intended prey.
Furlong here gives a clear example of throwing everything you’ve got at the wall in the hope that some of it sticks. Unfortunately, only 2 out of 5 of those stars do.