Exchange Theatre return to the Drayton Arms Theatre for Bastille Festival celebrations, this year putting on alternate English and French versions of Molière’s classic comedy Le/The Misanthrope. It centres around Alceste, a man who cannot abide flattery and instead is unflinchingly honest in his opinions – even when it could potentially affect his livelihood.
In our age of ‘fake news’ and Trump almost doing a King Lear (his first full cabinet meeting, captured by the media, heavily featuring his cabinet members showering praise and thanks upon him), it couldn’t be a more perfect time to revive this play. It resonates in day-to-day life too, where many are so obsessed with the amount of likes and retweets they can get that they act in increasingly desperate ways to get people’s attention. Whilst I wouldn’t follow his actions completely, I’m definitely more on Alceste’s side, both personally and as a critic; I don’t see the point in not speaking plainly in most situations, and prefer integrity over unfair success.
This production is set in a modern broadcasting company, which is definitely a good example of the current ‘court’ idea. I would normally have synopsised the show by this point, however I have to be honest and say that I don’t really know what happens. For starters, it takes a while to be certain about who’s who (you shouldn’t need to rely on a programme) – the unfamiliar names coupled with no helpful exposition makes watching early scenes feel like wading through treacle. The contemporary setting and references are all very well, but the play’s relevance should shine through regardless if the story is told effectively.
Direction (David Furlong) leaves a lot to be desired. There is an inexplicable amount of time where the ‘action’ takes place at the back of the stage (occasionally behind blinds); almost out of earshot, and more often than not with stage crew bustling about in front of the actors for no particular reason. I fail to understand why so many moments need to be captured in a selfie (this is true for life in general) or via video – it screams of a desperate attempt to make it feel modern and relevant when it absolutely does not need to. The obsession with music is also confusing, as it drowns out speech and is cut off abruptly and unceremoniously. The need for almost an entire play-through of a cover version of 9 to 5 is beyond me, especially as the cast just seem to wander around aimlessly while one of them does yoga under the noses of the front row. There are also moments where nobody is onstage and absolutely nothing happens.
There’s not a lot of positives to take from the cast either, unfortunately. Obviously it’s no mean feat to perform the same show in two languages on different nights (especially when it’s not your mother tongue), and it is stifling upstairs, but continual stumbling over lines is unacceptable. The script is largely in rhyming couplets and it’s impossible to follow what’s going on if the actors can’t remember them, and continually break up the rhythm. That form of speech can feel quite unnatural at the best of times, but it’s unbearable with the odd extra “er” and “um” added in at key moments. I’d suggest the company haven’t been given anywhere near enough time to prepare, and can only hope the lines stick more as the run continues.
Be warned: it was advertised as two acts of 60 and 40 minutes with an interval in-between, suggesting a two-hour run time – the press night performance took an uncomfortable 2h35. So much so that the line about ending “this painful scene” towards the end might well have been accompanied by cheers of agreement had the heat not drained the audience of all energy.
My verdict? A completely wasted opportunity to both entertain and make a serious point – its attempt at relevance only succeeds in making it irrelevant.
The Misanthrope runs at the Drayton Arms (in English and French) until 8 July 2017 (French performances until 6 July 2017). Tickets are available online or from the box office.