Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is not a name that would particularly trip off the tongue of today’s theatre goers but mention the name Molière and there would be rather more certainty of recognition. The two are, of course, one and the same person with the latter being the stage and pen name of the former. As well as acting and writing Moliere was a director, producer and theatre manager; there is even an ongoing debate about whether the dramatist actually wrote his own plays. Little wonder then that he is so often dubbed the French Shakespeare. The 400th anniversary of the Frenchman’s birth occurs in 2022 so I suspect we should ready ourselves for a slew of “Misanthropes”, “Tartuffes” and “Malade Imaginaires” over the next few months as we reappraise his work (though yesterday Michael Billington was of the opinion that this would not be the case). One of the first productions to see the light of day (on the actual weekend of his birth) was The Miser which premiered on Radio 3 and is now available on BBC Sounds.
I confess that, much like Chekhov, my familiarity with Molière is somewhat lacking. Those plays that I have encountered have failed to ignite much enthusiasm particularly when presented in their original format. I tend to agree with poet Roger McGough’s assessment: “Molière’s verse plays are written entirely in Alexandrines: 12-syllable rhyming couplets. These provide an endless thudding that is very soporific to the modern ear”. Add to that the fact that a lot of the original can be, as it were, lost in translation and they can become something to endure rather than enjoy. You may, at this stage, be wondering why on earth I went for this piece if that’s the way I feel. Two reasons – the fact that the blurb described it as “rumbustious” so seemed promising and that the inimitable Toby Jones was heading the cast.
Jones seems to bring a little bit of magic to anything he touches. He was so much better as Truman Capote than the more generally lauded Philip Seymour Hoffman and his special brand of hangdog man helped to make The Detectorists the hit it became. I recall wandering along the Thames banks during the Shakespeare celebrations in 2016 and seeing him playing a brilliant on screen version of Falstaff; why he hasn’t been offered the role on stage remains a mystery. And Jones is well on form in this audio version of the Molière playing the titular role of Harpagon and squeezing every ounce of comedy out of it while still maintaining a truth to the character which takes it beyond a mere funny turn. His is well supported by Holli Dempsey and François Pandolfo as his equally scheming though rather more likeable children Élise and Cléante; the latter is particularly effective at conjuring up the rather camp dilettante with an eye to an inheritance. Matthew Baynton as servant with a past Valère adds to the fun and the great Cecilia Noble pops up as an hilarious marriage broker.
Broking is central to the play whether the commodities are money or people and the plot and characters owe much to the commedia dell’arte tradition with its wily servants, struggling young lovers and ridiculous older protagonist. But although the comedy comes first and foremost in Barunka O’Shaughnessy’s version, there are many serious points which form a bedrock to the mayhem. Harpagon is, when all is said and done, a case in obsession and would give Scrooge a run for his money in the penny pinching stakes. His self-delusion is also right of the moment as Partygate rumbles on in the real world. Indeed, one of the big delights of the production is picking up on the subtly introduced commentary about life in modern times. Reinforcing this are the frequent uses of modern songs, sung a la 17th century and accompanied by a harpsichord, such as Abba’s “Money, Money, Money” and Simply red’s “Money’s Too Tight To Mention”. These are delightfully performed by soprano Sarah Gabriel and harpsichordist William Vann and help to set the tone right from the off.
I have to say that despite some preconceived misgivings, these turned out to be misplaced and I thoroughly enjoyed this production. It is to be hoped that any other Molière tributes which emerge this year can be as successful as this one has been in capturing the fun but also the underlying seriousness of the writer’s message – even if it turns out that he didn’t write it himself.