For a modern audience, it's tricky to gauge precisely what is the chief butt of the satire here. The very idea of a female thinker? Or the set- up that gave girls a limited education with the result that, as intellectual hostesses rather than as intellectuals, they could be hoodwinked by male charlatans and poetasters, confuse cerebral endeavour with a denial of the body, and waste whatever power for change they possessed on a beady- eyed policing of the language.
This last sounds rather like the modern fad of political correctness. And, of course, too politically correct a re-reading of The Learned Ladies would itself be open to satiric attack from a latterday Moliere. Faced with this problem, Steven Pimlott's often very funny revival of the play at the RSC's Other Place opts for a spot of spirited bet-hedging. The first half takes place in the 17th century, while the second gradually transforms itself into the present day, with a consequent jarring between the values of then and now. Given that AR Waller's prose translation dates from the 1910s, this is a somewhat odd tactic; certainly there is no attempt to update the cultural presuppositions as there was in Ranjit Bolt's more recent version, tellingly entitled The Sisterhood and set in the deconstructive 1990s.
Or at least not in the body of the play. Between the acts, however, Pimlott has introduced a Broadway-style singer who delivers clever-clever sub- Sondheim numbers ("A Misogynist ABC" etc). Some of these take that convenient, falsely modest male line of "why compete with our deficiencies?" "Learned Ladies, read no more" sings Blair Wilson, with an arch nod to Shakespeare, "learn no more, else you may sigh."
For all this multiplication of perspectives, the loudest laughter still comes at the women's sublimely potty credulity over the talentless poetic effusions of Trissotin. Roger Allam presents this figure as a wonderfully oily, calculating creep with a poncey-plummy, ever-so-pleased-with-itself northern drawl. It's a comic highspot when the women, excellently played by Caroline Blakiston, Alison Fiske and Niamh Cusack, pluck the banal phrase "say what they may" from his Sonnet to the Princess Urinate on Her Fever and repeat it over and over, marvelling at its endless profundity.
As the father of the household, John Quayle offers a hilarious portrait of a man who has decided it is high time he exerted his authority but who remains fundamentally unconvinced by his own performance. The plot, a tussle over suitable husbands, is hardest on Niamh Cusack's Armande, whose self-deception over her high-mindedness is signalled from the start in the splashes of passionate red in her 17th-century costume. Unfair, when it's her mother who is to blame for her racked condition, that the last laugh should be on her.
In repertoire at the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon.
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