a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society
Only that Moliere’s Misanthrope doesn’t avoid human society, he’s just really pissed at it. In 1666 Moliere wrote this masterful hissy fit of a play to get even on a society he didn’t agree with and – that didn’t agree with him quite often. At the time the play didn’t receive much accolade, probably because a strong female character, Celimene, gave as good as she got and strung along a line of contenders for her affection until she is put in her place by said men and the help of a pious woman (because women have always been their own worst enemy), so everything’s in order again on the 17th century front where women didn’t have any rights. The Misanthrope himself, Alceste, is the other extreme: Moliere portraits him as a man in search of truth and honesty and in love with a flighty woman, who gets cut down by a society that lives a double standard at the royal court. Talk to your face one way, stab you in the back the other. No surprise it wasn’t a huge success. Nobody likes to look into a mirror and face their worst self.
In this new production, a fresh translation by Justin Fleming successfully transponds the satire into present day Sydney, the French royal court to a court of different royalty – the music industry. We are witness to the filming of the music video of a number one star, appropriating all the necessary looks and pieces to make it a success, gratuitous bare skin, Michael Jackson pose and even a unicorn included.
But Lee Lewis, the genial director, put yet another twist on the original: she brilliantly gender swapped parts of the cast, making Alceste the female producer in love and turning Celimene into omnisexual Cymbeline. Arsinoe turns into Arsenio, the boss, the money, the power … and the one jealous of Alceste’s love for Cymbeline.
The story is fairly well known, I guess: Alceste is facing court over some false accusations and enters the massively cluttered stage in a strop, stomping away from her – only – friend Philippa, also her lawyer, because Philippa was friendly with someone she, Alceste, didn’t like. She then proceeds to mock Orton’s new song, making yet another enemy in the process. We meet Eleanor (no genderswap) who has a crush on Alceste and is the secret crush of Philippa. Cymbeline is introduced as eye candy, shirtless, pouting into an imaginary camera, presenting his goods, a very clever analogy to his whole life – presenting his goods to everyone and anyone who is able to further his career.
And there is much feared Arsenio (who is played by Simon Burke who brilliantly takes on being cast as the ice cold, powerful a..hole) who arrives in time to scare away two more appreciators (Angus, Cleveland) of Cymbeline’s charms with just a look. He proceeds to emasculate Cymbeline with razorsharp wit only to receive the same treatment by the younger man.
The victory is Arsenio’s though, as he is able to present the coveted Alceste with written proof of Cymbeline’s infidelity. In a fast paced, cruel second part Cymbeline is confronted with various letters he wrote to various men and to Alceste, giving each one the impression he loved only them while dissing the others. The hardest blow lands Alceste who’d be okay if Cymbeline would commit to him on a deserted island, away from a nosey society, but not with marrying him in the public eye. On a now empty stage everybody leaves to fanfares of shame (and the roar of a very expensive car in Arsenio’s case, who exits after icely denying that he ever was even remotely attracted to Alceste, who had rebuffed him) until Cymbeline walks out to the thunder of oncoming rain. The only happy couple are Philippa and Eleanor, the two level headed protagonists who think of others and not just themselves. Awwwwwwww
Now I admit to having a few problems with how the show is presented. I applaude the gender swaps. I love them. They make for beautiful bi and same sex relationships in the most casual way imaginable and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have seen them. I just find there’s two things that don’t work with it.
1. A young “lad of 20”, a rising music star producing a hit song/video … would he really be slut shamed? Wouldn’t he rather be admired, sought out, getting advertising gigs et al in today’s world?
2. My biggest hang up is with Alceste though. The way she behaves, throwing massive tantrums on stage, lacking any diplomatic skills … in today’s world she wouldn’t have been able to rise to her position. It’s still very much a boys’ only club, and while the old rebuttal “you’re too emotional (are you having your time of the month?)” finally gets being called out, it’s far from extinct. Alceste even mentions that in her scene with Arsenio, that she would be called out by the upper echelons of the business and it’s clear that Arsenio comes to the same conclusion. But I also have problems with the actress’ mannerisms which are mercilessly made fun of by Philippa, Rebecca Massey. I know it’s satire, I know it should be over the top, but no. Too much, no comical timing. She’s going for the easy laugh, but misses the mark when it comes to precision and pace. Add to that her voice which doesn’t hold up during 3 hours of fast dialogues and again and again goes hoarse, which is a shame. It might be called sexy on TV, but it’s bad vocal training on a vast stage in a large theatre.
I do love the set design. It very cleverly reflects the story as it unfolds, going from an overly cluttered backstage room to less and less props until all that is left is a large white backdrop that gives the actors a blank page to express themselves, to write on, (if they can 😉) a door and a chair.
Cymbeline, Ben Gerrard, has a drop dead gorgeous body and rightfully uses it, being objectified and half naked most of the time. (I hear his rigorous diet didn’t go over well with his poor partner.) Cleveland, Hamish Michael (who also plays Orton) and Angus, Anthony Taufa, are funny, relatable characters despite being written as over the top (and yes, I love both Hamish and Anthony. Great comical grasp, hugely talented awesome people). Philippa, Rebecca Massey, is by far the best female on stage. She’s flawless. Timing, posture. Love her. Eleanor is cute and sweet and very good, but doesn’t have enough chances to shine.
Arsenio. Oh he is magnificent. The character needs to be strong, ruthless, oozing confidence with a certain malicious streak and an ample dose of charm and Simon Burke excels in it. With razor sharp disdain for the rival of his interest in Alceste he eviscerates, emasculates the younger man with rapier like wit (I must say the lines “you are quite … for someone so underendowed. youth and beauty are hollow… you should learn to swallow.” And then, about his many lovers ” you are known to open doors, … your lovers sleep themselves to the middle” were masterfully delivered.) The contempt is real and the strikes against Cymbeline are hitting nerves. I consider the scene between Arsenio and Cymbeline as the strongest of the play.
There’s also silky light charm when Arsenio first tries to lure the trophy that Alceste would be and, when he’s not immediately successful , the honeyed cleverness of planting doubt in Cymbeline’s fidelity into her mind. Because of course he has proof. He is the power behind everything after all and manipulation is his second nature.
Now, I loved the flawless translation of the play, and think that the way Justin Fleming brought its rhymes to shiny new life is genial. But even though we live in a highly transparent time with all of social media making and breaking careers, and influencing our every move even though we might not even be aware of, I am not sure if I can relate to all the characters. It might be because Moliere’s play was written in another time AND place, it might be that some of the characters weren’t archetypal enough to survive, or it might just be that certain performers or rather a certain performer wasn’t quite up to the job of playing the lead in this play…
In this case though, you don’t have to believe me.
“The ‘strained’ scene of confrontation between Cymbeline and Arsenio, played flawlessly, and with subtle thought processes as sharp as a rapiers edge, intent in wounding deeply, but with the surface composure of the ‘innocent’ butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth ‘dandyisms’ of a super-precise intention by Simon Burke was the highlight of the night – interesting, for it is a scene usually played by two women – neither, of these men in this world show outward bruising, but the internal damage must be a spectacular bleed. Cymbeline and Arsenio do not much like each other.”
This is Kevin Jackson’s take on the play