The Misanthrope, Old Vic, Bristol
Tuesday 12 October 2010
Molière's grumpy truth-teller Alceste has been stomping the stage, pouring verbose scorn on sycophancy and mendacity, for over 340 years, but humanity has yet to produce a generation of a calibre he'd admire – nor one unable to spot the flaws in his loud protestations of frankness.
After the glitter of Martin Crimp's modern version starring Keira Knightley last year, we return to poet Tony Harrison's lithe and debonair 1973 adaptation, slyly updated with bloggers, HRT and mobile phones, and set in an airy Paris loft as stylish as the script. This Alceste, a successful writer, is suing his ex-agent for royalties, but his refusal to curry favour with the men who matter is doing him down, while his beloved Célimène's willingness to curry with anything in trousers is driving him mad. Simon Armstrong's craggy face crumbles a little at each new romantic, professional or philosophical disappointment, but this cliff is buttressed by a granite self-regard that even Célimène's unworthiness, and his failure to hate her for it, cannot erode. His inconstant lady, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, stalks about like a bejewelled heron, garnering more sympathy than Célimène's bitchy narcissist usually merits. And if the audience is left with the uneasy feeling that she's playing us like she does her lovers, so much the better: empathy, as Alceste's upright friend Philinte keeps trying to tell him, is much better for the liver than rage.
Alceste's histrionics are always stiff competition for the cast's assorted fops and flatterers, but Lucy Black as ghastly Arsinoé, whose so-called sincerity is even nastier than her white tights, and Byron Mondahl as influential doggerel-peddler Oronte, are particularly watchable, and director Andrew Hilton wisely gives his actors space to perform: he knows that even the proudest misanthrope is obsessed with others' opinions of him, even if Alceste does not.
The Misanthrope is, in a sense, critic-proof, since the play boils down to the intriguing question of how much scorn can be poured before the pourer gets soaked. However elegantly Harrison filters Molière's couplets, bile burns, which may be why Armstrong keeps running his hands through his luxuriant hair: his palms are wet with something scarier than sweat.
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