This delightful comedy concerns 'Alceste', a gentleman who has decided that from now on he will only tell people the truth, regardless of their feelings. This creates many problems for him, particularly when he criticises the poem of 'Oronte', a powerful nobleman. Also, to add to Alceste's problems he has fallen in love with 'Celimene', a widow who has many other male friends whom Alceste believes she is being unfaithful with.
This is a cleverly written play with all the usual confusions and subterfuge and has many splendid and interesting characters that are brought to life by a fabulous cast. Michael Pennington is simply wonderful as the frustrated and agitated 'Alceste' and Elaine Paige, making her non-singing stage debut, puts in a fine performance as 'Celimene', although probably a younger actress may have suited the part better. Peter Bowles performance as 'Oronte', a camp, pompous nobleman, is phenomenal. His great acting talent is there for all to see with his impressive poise and speech. Peter Bowles is not on stage much in this play, about 5 minutes in the first act and 15 in the second, but he makes a strong and valuable contribution.
The Misanthrope received fair notices from the popular press when it opened in March. EDWARD PEARCE of THE DAILY EXPRESS says, "...Sir Peter Hall has emerged with an almost perfect production, which by understatement, triumphantly demonstrates Moliere's grandeur." MICHAEL BILLINGTON of THE GUARDIAN says, "At a time when classical theatre is in deep trouble, Hall's new season puts the emphasis where it belongs: on text and performance rather than culinary decoration." MICHAEL COVENEY of THE DAILY MAIL says, "The only real gusto comes from Alceste's bile and David Yelland's excellent ripostes as the reasonable Philinte..." NICHOLAS DE JONGH of EVENING STANDARD says, "despite the production's local defects this Misanthrope's serious comedy still grips."
The Misanthrope is not belly aching fun, but it is nevertheless an enchanting play with a great cast that leaves you exiting the theatre with that feel good factor.
As the curtain rose the audience were dazzled with a blue light projecting upon the stage highlighting a minimalist set of a chair stage left and stage right, and centre stage, a giant frame: At one corner a ladder and at the top right a snake illuminated in green.
It was obvious that this was a reference to the game of snakes and ladders, how it related to the play, the audience could only guess. A further interest and intrigue was added with an unusual presence of what looked to be two people, both in ornamental dress of the plays period of 17th Century French court dress. One looking down towards the audience from the height of the ladder, the other sprawled upon the wooden floorboards below the snake, his head propped up against the frame.
They were so still, staying in place during the 5 minute curtain call, that the audience could be heard whispering, “ Are they real people or just models?” and “ Surely they can’t be real!”
But as the lights dimmed, to the audiences amazement and with a crescendo of music they moved down stage as the huge doors at the back of the stage opened. There stood an elaborately dressed man, who, turning his back on the audience as the two previously mentioned characters leered towards him, lifted his jacket to reveal his bare bottom.
It may be thought that this was an idea inspired by the acclaimed director Peter Hall, whoever’s “shocking” idea it was it certainly had a desired impact as it left the audience whispering and questioning its relevance to the play, interest and intrigue growing.
The general plot reveals that the main character Alceste played with the subtle balance of humour, wit and notorious sharp criticism by Michael Pennington, is in love with Celimene, played by Elaine Paige despite, even as he admits in the first scene their contrasting dispositions: He refuses to participate in the hypocritical social hierarchy, speaking honestly, but mostly too insensitively, his mind. She, on the other hand, enjoys society’s flaws, participating in the pretentious, immoral social circle encompassing the majority of the charcters. She enjoys the flatteries of the men, and refuses to isolate herself from them for his sake. Through this the play reveals general 17th Century moral values, notably, values and issues that are still relevant today.
The play ends with Alceste failing to keep his love, Celimene, as both refuse to change, and through scenes ranging from farce to series drama the audience witness Alceste leave her, returning to her only to find himself trapped within his own “frame”, isolated in his world of “honesty” and “honour” unable to reach her.
To see this play as purely a farce about the loves and losses of one man is wrong, it is a play on many levels. It is, as the symbolic set reveals a mirrored image of society. It should have, both in its period and ours, created a sense of unease in the audiences mind, about the way we live, afterall, are such things acceptable only when they remain unknown to the public, only to beocme immoral if made socially known? This particular production succeeds in asking these questions, particularly due to the care that not only has been taken with the script, but with the technical aspects. Costumes left the audience dazzled with silks, crepes and jewels of the wealthy, contrasting drastically with the cold hard lined set. Collaboration is maintained with the script to give the characters such as the two Marquis and fops their comical appearance, exaggerated in the manner of satire with feathers, ruffs and bows.
The actors themselves complimented each other well, Elaine Paige’s rounded character, showing a depth of nobility and pomposity, resulting in a feeling of compassion towards her. Her passionate speeches leaving the audience undecided, half pleading with her to deny the accusations made by Alceste of her affairs and to accept just him as her husband, but also wanting her to maintain her independence and respect.
The notable Peter Bowls made a well executed character of Oronte, a noble man, with his airs and upper-class snobbery, and together with the characters of the fobs, played by Crispin Bonham-Carter and John Elmes made a truly comic group. It is an intriguing experience to watch them climb and fall within their “game” of social relationships and overall results in a highly entertaining and satisfying production worthy of much praise.