Triumph of the lecherous, old skinflint

From left, Damien Strouthos, John Bell and Harriet Gordon-Anderson in “The Miser”. Photo: Prudence Upton

Theatre / “The Miser” by Moliere, a new version by Justin Fleming, directed by Peter Evans. At The Playhouse until April 20. Reviewed by Simone Penkethman

SINCE 2015, when John Bell retired from his position of artistic director, Bell Shakespeare has presented Shakespeare without Bell. In this production, the company offers us Bell without Shakespeare.

John Bell returns to centre stage as Moliere’s Miser, Harpagon, the archetypal, lecherous, old skinflint. The Miser is a familiar comic character that we also know as both Monty Burns from the Simpsons and his ancestor, Pantalone from Italian Commedia. Bell is grotesque as the repulsive Harpagon, head of a loveless family of two ungrateful and over-privileged children of marriageable age.

Valere is Harpagon’s servant and also lover to Harpagon’s daughter, Elise (Harriet Gordon-Anderson). In a modern, gender-bending twist, Valere, traditionally a man, is played by Jessica Tovey as a woman. This is a successful switch and it’s interesting to see how well this character works across genders.

The script is a new translation from the original 17th century French by Australian playwright, Justin Fleming. His translation uses Australian English, mingling both contemporary and archaic Australian idiom. Moliere is considered challenging to translate because of his use of fast-paced rhyme. Fleming tackles this challenge with flair; the dialogue seems to move effortlessly between tight, Dr Seuss-style rhyme and sassy conversation.

A towering set with four doors flattens the stage, giving a two dimensional cartoon space for the comic action to unfold. There are many familiar tropes: both Harpagon’s children are trying to avoid arranged marriages without being disinherited; long lost relatives, reveal themselves just in time to save the day (and pay the bill for the inevitable weddings at the comedy’s end).

As in several recent Bell productions, a single piece of furniture is moved around by the cast to denote different scenes. In this case, it’s a striking, blue chaise-lounge that provides a brilliant background for the exquisite costumes as players lie, lean, stand and tumble on the lounge. The farcical comedy calls for big, fast gestures and tight ensemble choreography – and its call is answered. Some of the funniest moments literally revolve around moving the couch.

 

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