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Gasping for Moliere

Matt Berry and Lily Cole in The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Matt Berry and Lily Cole in The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It could be ‘London bus syndrome’ or a sudden flowering of interest in France’s favourite playwright, but there is beaucoup de Moliere on Theatreland’s stages at the moment. There are no fewer than three productions either written by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin or inspired by him.

While The Miser at the Garrick Theatre and Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham’s Theatre have turned Charing Cross Road into the Rue Moliere, the Trafalgar Studios – rather a tactless address in the circumstances – is hosting a new production of  The Philanthropist, Christopher Hampton’s elegant riposte to Moliere’s The Misanthrope.

Whereas Alceste, Moliere’s anti-hero, believes in speaking his mind and thereby exposing society’s hypocrisies and deceits, Philip, the leading character in The Philanthropist, prefers to tell people what they wish to hear only to alienate those whom he wishes to please.

David Tennant in Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham’s Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

“You’ll always get into more trouble by being nice and not by being nasty,” observes Hampton.

Moliere believed that the function of comedy was to improve mankind morally and, unsurprisingly, his satirical barbs soon earned him a multitude of enemies – religious hypocrites, quack doctors, social climbers who eventually took their revenge, hastening his death in 1673. It is Moliere at bay, enduring the last hours of his life, that is the subject of Simon Bradbury’s play The Last Act of  Love of JB Moliere, which recently won the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize and is due to go into production in the city.

Moliere has made periodic appearances on the London stage, although Hampton recalls his amazement when told that his version of Tartuffe, presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s, was the first play by Moliere to be performed by the company. There have been a number of Tartuffes in London in recent years, with John Sessions (Playhouse Theatre) Antony Sher (RSC), Tom Hollander (Almeida Theatre) and Martin Clunes (National Theatre) playing the confidence trickster who uses his patron’s piety as a means of self-advancement.

The Misanthrope has also achieved a certain prominence, with Ken Stott and Elizabeth McGovern at the Young Vic and Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley in a West End production, and it lends itself well to a contemporary setting. More recently, Liverpool poet Roger McGough added a touch of Scouse to the Gallic by producing versions of The Hypochondriac, Tartuffe and The Misanthrope for the Liverpool Everyman and English Touring Theatre. In Scotland, there is a tradition of serving up Moliere in Scots and poet/playwright Liz Lochhead has had a particularly fruitful relationship with Moliere.

Like the trouper he was, Moliere died in harness, playing the lead in The Hypochondriac, an irony that the playwright was bound to have enjoyed. Why did writer Bradbury wish to focus on this part of Moliere’s ebbing life for The Last Act of Love of JB Moliere?

“I’d been fascinated for years about his final performance and his death,” he explains. “I worked on the play while the consequences of the 2008 financial collapse and the austerity measures were buzzing about in my head and they were definitely a factor in the forming of the play. I was very angry at the ceaseless assault on the guiltless and those that needed money. All this coalesced into a farce about Moliere’s last moment, where he is assailed by all his enemies at a point when he is at his most vulnerable.”

There would appear to be a tension in Moliere between the physical comedy he perfected during his long years touring the provinces under the influence of the commedia dell’arte and his chosen role as the moral scourge of society.

“I think that Moliere was an astute, brave and compulsive social critic. At the same time, his plays are very much about the family circle. He has the ability to be both highbrow and lowbrow,” says Bradbury. “I think that his plays can be both broad in their humour and quite distressing, provoking self-examination as well as causing us to split our sides with mirth. But it is not all laugh-a-minute with Moliere. He is clever enough to massage the audience into a false sense of security and then to nail them.”

It would be a mistake to exaggerate the interconnectedness of  The Misanthrope and The Philanthropist. Both plays can be experienced separately by audiences oblivious to the relationship between them. At the time he was writing The Philanthropist, Hampton was employed at London’s Royal Court as resident dramatist. He remembers the play’s awkward birth. At first sight it had the appearance of the civilised, well-made West End play that Hampton’s more militant colleagues had tried to drive into obsolescence.

“Things got gloomier and gloomier, which is not good when you are rehearsing a comedy. It had been passed from director to director. Bill Gaskill wanted to do it with Tom Courtenay, but he turned it down. Then Anthony Page was going to do it with Alan Bates as Philip, but then he got a film. There was talk of Michael Blakemore, but in the end we went for Bob Kidd. Finally we decided to put it on anyway and in front of an audience it just went like a rocket.”

From its opening in August 1970, The Philanthropist transferred to the May Fair Theatre, London, where it eventually clocked up a total of 1,100 performances.

“The success of The Philanthropist transformed my life. I’d always wanted to earn my living as a writer and now it was possible,” says Hampton. “And for this production we’ve been able, for the first time, to cast actors who are the age of the characters.”

Griff Rhys-Jones and Mathew Horne in The Miser. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The youthful company, headed by former Inbetweener Simon Bird, is presumably intended to reach an equally youthful public. And there appears to have been a similar calculation among The Miser’s producers to cast either comedy actors or stand-ups steeped in comedy.

Director Sean Foley explains the reasoning: “For me, Moliere is the greatest comic dramatist of all time and yet I’d never worked on any of his plays. I was talking to Griff [Rhys Jones] about him coming back to the theatre and we both looked at Moliere’s plays. Griff felt that he could bring something to the role of Harpagon in The Miser.”

Foley and his co-writer Phil Porter have produced a version of the play that has been “freely adapted”. What does this mean?

“It depends where you are coming from,” he replies. “You would do the play a great disservice for it not to be funny. The Miser has so many brilliant comedy moments that come from sources other than the text. There is a tendency for certain people to believe that they could know what the author’s intentions were, if only the laughter didn’t keep getting in the way. But we wanted to make something that was popular and that would attract an audience who, like Lee [Mack], had never even heard of Moliere before but who would find it fun. It’s very gratifying that the audience does laugh and that people think we have added scenes, such as the moment when Lee’s character reveals his bare arse. That’s Moliere, not us.”

What has Foley learned from his exploration of the work of Moliere?

“That people are mean and vain and stupid and that’s it. Yet Moliere takes those themes and uses them in a brilliant and entertaining way.”

The Miser runs at the Garrick Theatre, London, until June 3. Don Juan in Soho runs at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until June 10. The Philanthropist runs at Trafalgar Studios, London, until July 22

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