A new production of Moliere’s final play, translated and adapted by Roger McGough, with a rhyming script like the original? Sounds a complete hoot. And at times, it is! And at times, it isn’t. Of course, Tuesday night’s performance was a preview, so one must make all sorts of allowances. In fact the first person to enter the stage was Sheffield Theatres’ Associate Artistic Director, Anthony Lau, who reminded us that this was indeed a preview and that things were still taking shape; as well as the fact that Oliver Birch, the show’s composer, had stepped in to play Cléante at the last minute due to company sickness, script in hand, so that the show could go on. This made me very worried as to what I was about to receive. However, let me state here and now that Mr Birch is indeed one of the show’s highlights with a delightfully funny and confident performance, and were it not for the fact that he had to occasionally check the script you’d never know he was an understudy.
There’s quite a Moliere-shaped gap in my theatre experience, which was one of the reasons I was keen to see this production. Tartuffe, of course, reappears everywhere, most successfully recently with that brilliant RSC adaptation set in Birmingham. I had to read Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as part of my French A Level; I don’t think I enjoyed it much. Moliere’s Wikipedia page lists 36 plays under the heading Major Works, so you can think of him as being pretty much level pegging with Shakespeare as far as output is concerned. Le Malade Imaginaire (1673) was his final play; largely because, one night whilst playing Argan, the eponymous hypochondriac, he had a coughing fit during the performance and died later that night of a haemorrhage. You couldn’t make it up.
Moliere’s original is a sprawling, unfocussed play. Argan argues with his maid Toinette, his doctor Purgeon, his wife Béline, and his brother Beralde; he arranges for his daughter Angélique to marry a man she doesn’t like without knowing that she wants to pursue another suitor (Cléante). Eventually he becomes convinced that there is nothing wrong with him, and celebrates this fact by wanting to become a doctor himself. All this is broken up with little songs and dances (such was the way of Moliere’s comedies-ballet). There’s little pretence to making any serious points – it’s all done for the comedy. And Roger McGough’s adaptation is largely faithful to the original storyline and to the concept of rhyming, singing and primarily doing it for the laughs.
Colin Richmond has created a tremendous set, reflecting Argan’s salon, piled high with receipts and notes, with stacks of paperwork tumbling almost out of the sky. The costumes are classic 17th century French bourgeoisie; the harpsichord compositions feel like they could be lost works by Charpentier who wrote the original music for the play. However, McGough’s translations are distinctly 20th century, if not 21st; and whilst the enforced corny rhymes amuse at first, it doesn’t take long for them to pall. The trouble is, your ears get so used to expecting the rhymes that your brain starts to disengage from the words themselves and their meanings. And as soon as you recognise a rhyme, you’re waiting for the next one, and so on; becoming obsessed with the speech rhythm but not the content.
Consequently, it quickly becomes tiring, especially as there is no depth to any of it. The triteness of the lyrics was a major problem with the recent production of The Third Man at the Menier Chocolate Factory. In The Hypochondriac, that triteness is taken to a new level. McGough manages the musical element of Moliere’s original by creating his own little passages of originality, such as the speech all about the benefits of having an interval – cue time for the Interval; or indeed what would Moliere do here? or a verbal reference to the Scaffold’s very own Lily the Pink, at which everyone laughs in I see what you did there kind of recognition, but is as far away from the 17th century setting as you can get. A little bit knowing and clever-clever for my liking.
Edward Hogg is a wily, wiry, whiny Argan, a self-obsessed wretch who likes to manipulate but is easily manipulated himself. It’s not a domineering performance; even though the play revolves completely around Argan, it doesn’t feel like the production sets Mr Hogg up as its main source of energy. That comes more from the other members of the household: Jessica Ransom’s insincere Béline, Saroja-Lily Ratnavel’s flustered Angélique, Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos’ irrepressible Toinette, and perhaps best of all Chris Hannon’s boisterous Beralde. Garmon Rhys steals the show with his beautifully over-the-top performance as unsuitable suitor Thomas Diaforius, reciting his compliments from memory and flourishing his ostentatious bow like a stampeding rhino.
If you’re expecting anything subtle or poised, I think I’d recommend booking for a different show. It’s certainly fast and furious; but on Tuesday night it felt rather ragged and a little over-hectic; hopefully it will gain a little more slickness over time. I have to say the audience gave it a massive cheer at the end. Some good performances, some overplayed enthusiasm and some tiresome language creates something of a mixed prescription for me. I can only be grateful that doggerel doesn’t quite rhyme with b*gger all.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan