English Touring Theatre’s production of Roger McGough’s The Misanthrope is a truly splendid evening: beautifully overstated performances, a mischievous delight in language and more rhyming couplets that you can shake a stick at make for two hours of unalloyed joy.
Based loosely on Molière’s verse play, it centres on Colin Tierney’s Alceste, a man disgusted with the hypocrisies of the French aristocracy. He decides to renounce meaningless shows of affection – which are always followed by a callous display of backstabbing – and vows to only speak the truth. He forgoes flattering, flowery verse and becomes the only character in the play to talk in plain speaking prose. The fatal flaw in his plan is his love for Célimène (Zara Tempest-Walters) who plays the courtly game of committing character assassination on professed friends as well as anyone. Will she ultimately ditch her other lovers and change her mendacious ways? The answer is more surprising than you might think.
McGough’s script blends incredible feats of verbal dexterity with puns and jokes which are enjoyably and low, and knowingly awful. Director Gemma Bodinetz does excellent work, not least in the play’s final image which makes the play hauntingly resonant. But the chief pleasures of The Hypochondriac are ultimate down to the actors.
Tierney seems to exist in a state of permanent outrage at the baseness of humanity, or at least its Parisian contingent. When he likens someone to a ‘slavering hound’ he momentarily seems to embody the spirit of the hound in question. Leander Deeny as Clitandre, one of Alceste’s rivals, is the most foppishly foppish fop imaginable who, just occasionally, is allowed to behave more like an American teenage girl than an 17th century courtier. Tempest-Walters is a magnificently commanding anti-heroine – intelligent, charming but ultimately as corrupt as those who have perhaps corrupted her. Daniel Goode’s poet manqué is the perfect comic rendition of the failed artist who professes a desire to hear the truth about his work, and is then genuinely aggrieved when he gets it.
Continues at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Saturday May 5.