My friends – mes amis – I think we might have Molière all wrong. There are bigger problems, true, but I think this issue says a lot about the way we look overseas.
British theatre tends to play France’s man broad. We trace his roots through commedia dell’arte, which swept through France at the time, and so bloat his characters into caricature. We note the long tradition of French farce – from Marivaux to Feydeau – and whip Molière’s plots into sitcom-style fancies.
This year’s rash of Molière – a sudden outbreak of Tartuffes – has followed suit. The National dropped a raggedy Denis O’Hare into an overblown, Islington designer home, while the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation spun the impostor into a fraudulent imam. Both scored sharp, satirical points and raised big laughs. Neither was remotely credible.
I’m just back from Paris where, last Saturday, I caught a matinee of The Misanthrope at Comédie Française. In short, it turned my sense of Molière completely upside-down.
My rusty French GCSE can get me through déjeuner, but not Molière, so I’d spent the morning swotting up on the plot. I had Martin Crimp’s version with me: a high-gloss, rapier-sharp transposition that plonks the play into the hypocritical, two-faced world of – ahem – the theatre. It’s droll as hell. Alceste becomes a pompous playwright who skewers a critic called Covington and likens Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals to natural disasters. The script drips with scorn for its media-world caricatures.
What I saw on stage, however, felt a world apart. It sought to return Molière to reality – or restore reality to Molière. Set in a run-down, ancestral home that slowly came back to life as chandeliers were raised and tables were laid, Clément Hervieu-Léger’s direction felt stitched into a wider world. Loïc Corbery’s Alceste wasn’t the usual superior snark, but a lost soul, wrapped in a Withnail-style coat, who’d seen through society and slipped into despair. He was comic, but only tragically so – just as Hamlet or Vanya are, in their way. Here, Molière could have out-Chekhoved-Chekhov. This wasn’t flip or farcical, or even satire as such. Instead, it felt existentially profound.
Afterwards, speaking to Corbery backstage, he said something fascinating. At the Barbican the week before The Damned, he’d seen a poster for the RSC’s transfer of Tartuffe – billed as ‘a comedy by Molière’. “No,” he said. “That’s not right at all. Something’s got lost in translation.”
Might it be the word ‘comédien’ – actor, in French – or because Molière (with his hair) inspired our Restoration comedies. Perhaps it’s that his titles seem so singular, reducing protagonists to a character trait. Maybe we mistake his portrayals of a superficial, artificial society for superficial, artificial plays. We’re not schooled in his work as we are in Shakespeare’s and, let’s be honest, there’s a shade of cross-channel snobbery involved.
We’re missing out. It’s time to take Molière seriously.
Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/matt-trueman