By Roger McGough
Directed by Gemma Bodinetz
English Touring Theatre
The Nuffield, Southampton
11th May 2013 Matinee
As so often, the programme illustration bears no resemblance to the costume or the play.
My old writing partner, Bernie Hartley, used to get furious about the UK’s misguided approach to teaching languages, and always gave the example of passing GCE O Level in French (as it was), so just about able to conduct a rudimentary conversation, them moving to A level six weeks later and being expected to read Molière’s The Misanthrope in the original 17th century French.
The last version of this play that I saw was the Martin Crimp one in 2009, with Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley, just before starting this stage blog. That was set in a modern hotel and was a revival of a 1996 Young Vic debut, with updated current references. As a modernisation it worked extremely well, and Damian Lewis was a perfect Alceste, and Crimp had written the modern-day Célimène as a film star, so they had Keira Knightley playing it, a clever casting move: real film star playing a film star.
Roger McGough mentions in the programme that he skimmed through a handful of Moliere’s plays while studying for a degree in Schoolboy French at Hull University and he became a GCSE set poet in his own right, or as John Lennon said, in his own write, so … Roger McGough has done a new version of The Misanthrope, but set it back in the 17th century when it was written (1666), which nowadays is a radical move in itself. He’s also had the characters speak in verse, except for the misanthropic Alceste, who starts with verse, stops, and then on sticks with prose, kicking himself if he accidentally lapses into verse.
Oh, dear. This is a misanthropic review. The picture tells the story. In my recent review of Hamlet I mentioned the phrase “Hamlet without the Prince.” This was The Misanthrope without Alceste. No understudies are listed in the programme, which is an oversight, or rather a risk, for a long tour. With such elaborate and excellent set and costume and music, this production had been invested in heavily. But no understudies.
I don’t think it is acceptable to devote a day of our time, pay for tickets, and drive forty miles each way to see the lead role reading the script aloud. We have no idea why Chris Porter had to be parachuted in. Let’s say straight away that he read superbly, and looked the part. He was clearly relieved to get through to the end, and the encouraging pats from his fellow cast members as they went off were extremely well-deserved, and if he’s the permanent Alceste from now, he’ll be wonderful with a learned part and a couple of days rehearsal, so nothing I say from here is critical of him. It IS extremely critical of the English Touring Theatre for embarking on this venture without proper understudies. I’ve seen plays with understudies several times, and they’ve been fine.
But they haven’t been reading from the script.
I don’t even object to an advertised ‘rehearsed reading’ and for a decade when we were doing theatre comedy shows for foreign students, we regularly had to do full plays in “costumed rehearsed readings with action” because the brochure advertised it. I’ve done a lot of work with the book in view. Incidentally, at least I’d have sent someone to Staples or W H Smith to get a leather binder for the script to vaguely fit the era. Anyway in a modern play you can read much more effectively by hitting the important lines (which you know anyway) and paraphrasing a bit in between to get your head out of the book. You can’t do that with such a tightly scripted play where the rest of the cast are speaking in verse.
We both felt the situation threw everyone’s timing. There’s a the scene where Orante reads his dreadful sonnet, and Alceste has to interject. One interjection is just adding a “t” after Orante says “far.” Half the battle in this scene would be Alceste’s facial reactions, which had to be intercut here with looking down at the printed page. It also requires obsessively rehearsed split-second comedy timing. It fell flat on its face.
This is a comedy. A meagre matinee audience is hard to work, especially one as meagre as only Southampton can be, but even so they got hardly a titter in the whole of Act One, and only a few titters in Act Two. Not a single open laugh or guffaw in two hours. Comedy is all about timing, and you can’t do it in a professional production without rehearsal, unless you’re going for the heady wild edge of improvisation. Tight scripts need tight timing.
It should have been better when Alceste was off stage, as in the lovely business with the fops walking their dogs, but I felt by then the audience sensibility and reactivity was dulled beyond rescue.
Act Two looked up because the first scene was Célimène and Arsinoe, so they got off to a fresh start without that tell-tale grey plastic script cover in view. So that was the best scene in the play by far, though as we said afterwards, McGough’s attempt to write a catty Cecily and Gwendolen … sorry, Célimène and Arsinoe … was inferior to Oscar Wilde. But so are most dramatists. Anyway, both actresses performed it well, and they extracted the best laughs of the afternoon. However these were courtesy of quotes from Robert Herrick and William Shakespeare.
The fops are the fops are the fops, and you can’t get a British cast messing up over-the-top fops. Doing them well is expected, and they did. Oronte deserves special mention.
I found myself getting critical of the script because it stayed pretty-well leaden and plodding and a laughter-free zone whether Alceste was on or off. Perhaps the whole cast was depressed and struggling by whatever caused the replacement. Sparkle was there none, but listening to the bare words, there should have been. A lot of positioning was static outside the excellent set-piece dance movements (not involving Alceste), but then it had to be.
It’s unfair perhaps to judge McGough on a cobbled-together performance. Afterwards, we discussed watching an audition reading for one of our videos in a theatre in Oxford, where the female lead was so miscast it was sheer torture listening to her delivery of our script. Here the replacement was first-rate, but you can’t do the reactive acting … which is what Alceste is so often about, observing the world he despises, with a book in your hand.
All the cast here were good, and looked good, but we felt no one had their heart in it this afternoon.
In the end, I’d have to say Martin Crimp’s earlier version of The Misanthrope is Premier League to McGough’s Second Division, without any question judged on this performance. And Damian Lewis and Keira Knightly were in a different league too. But we probably knew that before we went in. McGough being funny reminds me of Spike Milligan in his later days. The text failed to work and get a laugh a lot more often than it worked.
I think the English Touring Theatre should have offered money back, or at least a rain check to another performance. I’d read such good reviews of this production, that I would rather not have watched this performance, but instead gone to see it elsewhere on the tour done properly. There’s also a basic courtesy of communication and information lacking. Accidents, illnesses, emergencies and tragedies happen. It is not our business to know why exactly the lead was withdrawn, but even “Due to the indisposition of …” on the notice is at least an attempt to explain, and all it needs. As the ETT presented it, we were left with the possibility of “Saturday matinee. Only 20% of tickets sold, might as well give the new understudy a practice run.”