Bell’s ‘Miser’ takes liberties with Molière

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Damien Strouthos as Cléante and Harriet Gordon-Anderson as his sister in “The Miser”. Photo: Prudence Upton

DAMIEN Strouthos is one of those rare theatrical individuals – a specialist in classical acting.

We’ll be seeing him soon at The Playhouse playing Cléante, the entitled but insightful son of Harpagon, the central character in Molière’s “The Miser”. That notoriously obsessive skinflint will be played by John Bell, founder of Bell Shakespeare Company in a production directed by his successor, Peter Evans.

Strouthos is no stranger to the company. When he was 19 he worked with their Actors at Work unit taking the Bard to school kids in remote parts of NSW. Then, as a founding member of the Sport for Jove Theatre Company, he played in “Cyrano de Bergerac”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet”.

Since graduating from WA’s Academy of Performing Arts in 2012 he has been with Bell Shakespeare on two national tours, three tours across eastern Australia, and as a member of the educational troupe The Players.

The celebrated play, written and staged in 1668 when the playwright was very ill, is one of several in which an ageing father is the victim of his own obsessions and it’s the perfect vehicle for Bell at his most eccentric.

It’s also a chance for younger actors to test what translator Justin Fleming calls “the innate joy of rhyme”.

“The Miser”… from left, Damien Strouthos as Cléante, John Bell as Harpagon and Harriet Gordon-Anderson as daughter Élise. Photo: Prudence Upton

Instead of using the prose in which the ailing, tired Molière wrote “The Miser”, Fleming has reverted to the rhyme of his earlier plays, playing fast and loose with poetic conventions and inventing his own.

As Damien Strouthos explains, if it’s love-talk, they’ll speak in “ABBA” rhyme, if it’s truthful, it gets an “ABAB” rhyme and if it’s insincere talk, it’ll be “AABB”.

Performed by professional actors, clever rhyming can range from the corny to the uproarious, so we find Cléante pronouncing:

But he can stuff his discretion up his crocodile; the man’s clearly a snake;  

I’ve heard of daylight robbery, but this one takes the cake.

“Justin Fleming’s translation feels very modern and fast and funny,” he says, justifying the change to rhyme by suggesting that the master playwright would have used rhyme if he hadn’t been so sick at the time. “It gives it a real drive, pace and energy. The audience has fun predicting what the rhyme might be and then their expectations are subverted.”

The story is straight out of the commedia dell’arte farce tradition in which Molière trained as an actor. The avaricious father wants to marry the young and beautiful Mariane, but she is his son’s beloved. Also, he wants to marry his daughter Élise to a fat old man, but she’s in love elsewhere. The children and the clever servants connive to solve the problem.

“There’s something intrinsically funny in an old man wanting to marry a woman less than half his age,” Strouthos says.

“And while Cléante and his sister Elise may be a bit brattish, they exemplify a zest for love and life.”

While Molière is admired for his satirical tilts at hypocrisy and respectability, he also invests his characters with humanity, so in this play, Strouthos says, most of the characters have their own reconciliation and catharsis.

Molière throws in a gratuitous happy ending, but here his intent is clear. Harpagon ends up as a pitiful old man with his cash, and nothing else, fulfilling the old theatrical adage that “the fifth act of a comedy is the first act of a tragedy”.

Bell Shakespeare’s “The Miser”, The Playhouse, April 11-20. Book at  canberratheatrecentre.com.au

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