Review: The Hypocrite ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Review: The Hypocrite

The Hypocrite by Molière, adapted by Justin Fleming, directed by Peter Evans. Designed by Stephen Curtis, lighting by Matt Scott, music by Ian McDonald. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre until December 13. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

Melbourne this year has felt like a little outpost of France. There have been no less than three main stage productions of Molière’s plays, including two of Tartuffe. This new version at the MTC, adapted by Justin Fleming as The Hypocrite, follows a rambunctiously vulgar adaptation presented earlier this year by the Malthouse Theatre.

It’s easy to see the appeal of Molière’s unforgiving satires of human folly and greed, and in particular why Tartuffe – about a conman masquerading as an evangelist – should strike a chord. In our time religion is a locus of deep anxiety, and the gap between language and action in public life has become an almost unbridgeable abyss.

Like the Malthouse production, this new version is contemporised, but its 17th century antecedents are stamped on the design and performances and, with less felicity, onto the script.

There are many things to like about Peter Evans’s direction, which features a stripped down and deeply theatrical elegance. Stephen’s Curtis’s set emphasises its own artifice and his absurd costumes unite frou-frou opulence with contemporary simplicity.

Evans has gathered a cast with depth as well as breadth. Garry McDonald plays the hapless Orgon, who falls under the spell of the charlatan holy man Tartuffe (Kim Gyngell), sacrificing his family and property before realising that Tartuffe is a greedy, lustful weasel (dressed rather unsettlingly like a ‘60s intellectual) who has worked out that he can do what he likes as long as he cloaks his actions in pious intentions.

The first 10 minutes, with Kerry Walker in full flight as Madame Pernelle, are very promising. But for all its fine elements, the production ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

The major problem is Fleming’s script. Most puzzlingly, it makes Orgon’s family innocent victims of Tartuffe’s nefarious strategies, rather than themselves ambiguous objects of satire. This blunts its comedy and transforms Molière’s play into a straight defence of bourgeois values.

The language occasionally achieves a balance between colloquial and literary, and when it does, it works beautifully. But more often it’s staid, with a stitled vernacular featuring rather too much forced and clunky rhyme (varied, apparently, between quatrains and couplets, but all with the same punishing rhythm).

To sustain rhyming couplets for any length of time in English – a language with very few rhyming words – requires the linguistic dazzle of a Byron. Fleming is simply not that inventive. In his hands, Molière almost becomes earnest, which is new indeed.

This review was published in yesterday's Australian.

Picture: publicity shot for The Hypocrite: Marina Prior, Kim Gyngell and Garry McDonald.


Anonymous said...

My mother looks like Kim Gyngell.

And so do YOU! Do you HEAR ME?

Alison Croggon said...

Who's "YOU"?

Anonymous said...

Bah! don't play your little games, Ma.

YOU know who YOU are...
Kim Gyngell in a wig, that's who.

Take it up with my solicitor... or wear it like a man.

Alison Croggon said...

You have a solicitor, Anon? What for?

I'm not sure Mr Gyngell deserves such abuse. And I don't see why I should wear anything like a man.

Meanwhile, allow me to direct YOU to the comments policy, a click away on the sidebar.

And if a mouse click is too much trouble, please note that I'm a humourless bitch who will summarily remove trolling comments, as I did just now. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean it as a bad thing. Geez.
Kim Gyngell's got very fine bone structure.

Alison Croggon said...

Sure. I'll take you at your wobbly anonymous word. It just happens that talking about my or Kim Gyngell's bone structure, however personable and charming in either case, isn't what this blog is for.

TimT said...

If I can just put in a word for the English language... I reckon that the argument that English has very few rhyming words is more of a truism than true. There's a good 500 year-long tradition of rhyming verse in English, and most of the basic everyday nouns and verbs we use are eminently rhymable.

Also, the habit English has of absorbing new words and new linguistic habits into its basic lexicon has given us many more interesting and versatile rhymes - hence the introduction of new scientific terminology into poems in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the various experiments with rhyme tried in the 19th and 20th century by a number of popular and/or adventurous poets.

It is probably true to say that, in some sense, English has relatively less rhymes than other languages, based on a well-defined linguistic study. But there are certainly more than enough rhymes in English for most writers. If the rhymes in this production are bad, it says less about rhyming in English than it does about the abilities of Mr Fleming!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TimT - no, it is true. Anglo-Saxon/early English poetry relied heavily on alliterative stressed verse, and rhyme is a relatively recent import. When things like sonnets or terza rima were imported from Italian - a language in which the challenge is not to rhyme - they became another kind of poem in English, precisely because of the ingenuity it required to make the rhymes work. (It's also why it's so difficult to translate the Divine Comedy - Dorothy Sayers did it in terza rima, and it's really not bad, but you simply can't do what Dante did in Italian in English). Also, rhymes in English tend - unless handled very well - to fall very heavily on the ear. It's relatively easy to do the clonk clonk rhyme that signals comic verse, but a much more difficult - though most certainly not impossible - proposition to rhyme in serious poetry. And those who do it well (Walcott, Bishop, Webb, signally Auden) are very skilled. The more so, the more effortless it looks.

TimT said...

You make rhyming in English sound much harder than it actually is. Plenty of English-language writers have successfully integrated rhymes into their poems.

All a writer really needs to rhyme successfully is a little flexibility and an ability to perceive some of the formal qualities of English. Considering that right through the 20th to the 16th century, thousands of writers achieved this feat - through times in which literacy was much less common than it is now - it seems evident that the English rhyme is not that difficult at all.

Anonymous said...

Tony Harrison's Misanthrope manages to rhyme effectively without going lollopy-plod, lollopy-plod the whole way through. Rhyming couplets in English are indeed tricky. The Bard only uses them occasionally and for effect.

Alison Croggon said...

I fancy I might disagree with you on what constitutes good rhyming, TimT... on the whole, and with proper respect to all its considerable pleasures, I tend to agree with Milton's strictures on rhyme when he said it was "no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter..."

Anonymous said...

In the MTC production there is feeling that the actors are speaking rather fast instead of adopted a slightly slower verse speaking style (like the way the Dianna Rigg and Alec McCowan did in the National Theatre's Misanthrope in Harrison's translation) and the verse is deliberatly stressed like a kind of Gilbert without the Sullivan.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

It's a well known fact that English has more words than French. Therefore English is better for rhyming because you have more options.

I really don't see any way you can refute that, because it is the truth and everyone knows it. Except you, it seems. But that's okay.

Rhyming couplets are excellent in English, Alison. I can forward you a few examples, if you like.

All the best
A Friend

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - I don't know Harrison's version, but he can certainly write verse (and poems). As for the MTC version: if they weren't speaking fast, it would run for about four hours...! There's certainly a good argument for judicious cuts to some of Moliere's longer speeches.

Sometimes the stressed rhymes worked well, actually. But you really can't do a lot of that, it gets old very fast.

Anonymous said...

I think Tony Harrison is a fine poet. English is certainly a difficult language when it comes to sustained rhyming. For instance, I cannot think of a single word that rhymes with Gygnall.

Alison Croggon said...

Dear Friend: I think you misunderstand me. I never said that rhyming in English is impossible or always awful. I am, for example, as the review reveals, a big fan of Byron's wordsmithing. And I'm perfectly aware of Pope, the Earl of Rochester and Jonathan Swift, all of whom I admire and who were masters of couplets.

And it is also pretty irrefutable that compared with some other European languages - Italian, French and Spanish in particular - English is very poor in rhyme. This is because those languages have inflections and we do not. Consult WH Auden, who was probably with Ezra Pound the greatest prosodic technician of the 20th century, if you doubt me.

Unknown said...

Saw The Hypocrite on Saturday night.

What a totally under-edited disaster!
The set, in my opinion, was drab and a "good idea done badly", costumes were entertaining but inconsistent. Kim Gyngell was wrongly cast, how could anyone be taken in by that weaselly character. Nothing against Mr Gyngell having adored his previous 2008 MTC stint!

A clever class commentary farce was turned into a serious of too long, dreary monologues.

Bravo Malthouse for your brilliant witting fast paced production, try again MTC!

Ben Ellis said...

Re "Friend" and TimT on rhyming, I really wonder if they are familiar with French or Italian. English contains very few words that end with an unadorned vowel sound, which rather than expand the possibilities for rhyming, contracts them. For e.g., you can't rhyme "ant" with "and" - the consonant ending prevents it. Plurals in Italian either end with "-e" or "-i" for all words, and just about every other word ends with "-a" or "-o". Easier to rhyme "-ando" with "-anto", non e vero? Similarly, French words tend to end with vowel sounds, rather than a vowel/consonant combination. It's actually because of the sponge-like nature of English, with so many words, with so many different sorts of endings, with so many choices, that - perhaps counter-intuitively for the uninformed - makes rhyming less available to the everyday writer in English... or to the odd extraordinary one.

You could go about constructing couplets based on "-ing", but that would be boring, and would completely participle me off.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ben - it's those verbs, with all their regular endings. I'm sure that TimT knows what an inflected verb is. I'm not sure our Friend does, though.

Anonymous said...

I see nobody cares that I have been driven to suicide...

I shall write a rhyming poem, and then slaughter myself.

A Lonely Friend

Anonymous said...

ALISON! Don't you CARE? Do I mean NOTHING to you???

A Friend on the Edge of the Abyss.

Alison Croggon said...

No and Yes.

As well as being humourless, I also have a heart of flint. It beats me why you keep hanging around. I suggest you try Lifeline or maybe the nearest pub.

Anonymous said...

Fine. I shall be gone.

But part of me will stay with you, Alison.

You will think of me every time you look in a mirror and ask yourself, 'Do I really look like Kim Gyngell? In a wig?'


Alison Croggon said... I won't...but if it makes you happy, you can think so.