Naomi Liddle tells us about her show The Misanthrope, our next production at SLT
This is your second Molière play for SLT – what’s the attraction for you?
I originally came across The Hypochondriac rather by accident and fell in love with the way that Roger McGough transposed the original text into shamelessly modern speech while keeping the rhyming structure. I had been thinking of doing another of McGough’s translations but then came across Martin Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope and was hooked.
Molière is rightly lauded as a legendary comic playwright, but I find The Misanthrope is much deeper than many of his others – there are no real heroes or villains, everyone is dreadful in their own way and the audience is challenged to consider questions about conformity, social propriety and whether anyone can really get by in life without being a bit two-faced. It has some very daft bits but also a lot for actors and directors to get their teeth into, which appeals to me. Updating it for a modern audience makes this all the more relevant.
How has Martin Crimp honed the story for the present day?
Molière himself wrote that it was important for plays to be “recognisable portraits of the contemporary world”, so it seems logical to want to update the story for a present day audience. Indeed, even this version was first staged in 1996 and has undergone some tweaking in the interim. The action has moved from the 17th century salons of Paris and Versailles to an equally bitchy arena – that of stage and screen. It translates perfectly to this arena and some of the gossip and backbiting is delicious.
In preparation we read a traditional version alongside Crimp’s update, and it is amazingly faithful. He has done a great job of taking the 1666 text and cleverly modernising it while keeping the bouncy rhyming scheme. The rhymes can take the audience by surprise for a page or two but I find it quite melodic and some of them are very wry indeed.
The Hypochondriac seemed reasonably straightforward in staging terms – has this one been more challenging?
In a word – yes! The Hypochondriac was set in its original time, with period costumes which I decided to let shine by keeping the set very bare. The Misanthrope all takes place in one hotel room and I wanted to have different levels chiefly in order to facilitate such a crowd of actors! I’ve always had a bit of a Chekov’s gun approach to set design in that I don’t like having more than is necessary and prefer the performances to have space to shine, so I have still kept it rather simple with the odd touch of the baroque. The script makes mention of a harpsichord but that got ditched quite early on – as for some reason we don’t seem to have one in props….
Can you give us a sneak preview of your cast and their characters?
I have been spoiled with a cast of old friends and new members and they’ve really become a great team. It’s an ensemble piece really but the action centres around the titular misanthrope, Alceste (Mark Vinson). He’s a playwright who’s sick of sycophancy and backslapping and has fallen head over heels for bright young movie star, Jennifer (Grace MacDougall). With her gossip and bitchy entourage she seems to represent everything that Alceste hates, but are they actually two sides of the same coin?
Along the way there are complications and comedy in the form of Owen Chidlaw as Covington the critic, Alex and Tom Watts giving maximum wattage as a slimy agent and a vain actor respectively, newcomer Ify Ugboma as a feminist journalist and Helen Chadney giving a lesson in passive aggression as a slightly defunct acting teacher. They are all watched over with a long-suffering eye by Alceste’s friend John (Christopher Vian-Smith), and we welcome Joanna Graystone-Llewellyn, a newcomer who has taken on two small but perfectly formed cameo roles.
The Misanthrope runs 3 – 7 July at the Old Fire Station. You can buy tickets in advance here. We look forward to welcoming old and new members back at our refurbished West Norwood home, so please plan to arrive early and take advantage of our lovely bar which has had a bit of a makeover.