[2011113] The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope

State Theatre Company of South Australia @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

11:00am, Wed 9 Mar 2011

Not many people recognise the amount of effort required to Schedule a Fringe assault in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed; whilst 2011 proved to be my most ad hoc year ever, there was still a heap of show-shuffling that went on behind the scenes. And my most fundamental of scheduling techniques is the following one simple rule: if there’s a matinée, slot it in early.

And so it was with The Misanthrope: I spotted the weekday morning timeslot, thought “Morning! Bonus!”, and bought tickets.

And it was only after I’d picket up the tickets that I noticed the date: March the 9th. My birthday.

My fortieth birthday. That’s one of the Big Ones, I’d been led to believe.

Hmmmmm, I contemplated. Could this have been a bad move? But I countered straight away: no no no, 11am will be a doddle. It’s not like you’ll be having a big one the night before. And besides, the matinée is more important.

I remembered those words as I tumbled into bed at 4am that morning, after a teensy little celebratory session at the Fringe Club. I rued those words as I struggled from bed into the shower before dragging my aged bones down to Her Majesty’s.

Now, weekday matinées during Fringe-time usually mean two things: the grey-haired crowd roll up in greater numbers than for other shows, and school groups are there en masse. My Row R seat had me fearing that I would be peering at the stage over crowds of squirming Year 10 students; but by the time the play started, I was like an island in a sea of red seats. There were plenty of silver-tops in front of me, but no uniforms were present… which made me wonder why my FringeTIX issued ticket was so far back. Not that I was complaining; I spread out comfortably, necked my third espresso of the morning, and studied the set: a fractured stencil of Marilyn Monroe towers over a mauve lounge on the raked stage. Sparse, but stylish.

After a quiet start, we’re introduced to the titular misanthrope, Alceste – a writer by trade, he sneers at the culture that supports him whilst enjoying it’s privilege. But he’s resolute in his independence from the media tycoons who would be his boss; happy with his niche popularity, he feels obliged to criticise other artists (all the while stating “we critics are artists too”)… an act which angers a powerful(!) member of their polite society.

The character conflict comes in the form of Jennifer, a successful film star (of populist rubbish, Alceste notes) and celebrity, who has no qualms about manipulating any social group for her own gain. Alceste is most certainly smitten by her, but is rational enough to recognise her charms (“flattery destroys an individual’s critical faculty”), and loathes her socially slutty behaviour. Of course, the other males in the cast are attempting to woo Jennifer too… and she revels in their attentions.

The cast-wide Jennifer-lust reaches a crescendo with the transformation of the set into a gloriously garish, over-the-top ballroom. The characters return for a fancy-dress ball, their costumes matching the excesses of the set. There’s 80s metal hair galore, and Julian’s stupendously camp costume was perfect – and accompanied by Don’t Leave Me This Way, just to make sure you get the message. But in the tussle for Jennifer at the ball, Alceste’s advances are vainly rejected – and he commits himself to exile.

It should be noted that The Misanthrope was a 17th-century comedy of manners by Molière; Martin Crimp modernises Molière’s character names and their verse (which sees such rhyming devices as “fucked it… deconstruct it”), but leaves many of the themes in their original French aristocratic surrounds. It is very much a character-focused piece, but I can’t help but think that State Theatre have pushed the extremes of the characters a little too far; with the campy excesses of Julian and Alexander, and the brash bitchiness of Jennifer, Alceste – the supposed “misanthrope” – feels positively normal.

But that’s just a little bit of nit-picking, really. The Misanthrope was a loud, brash, and enjoyably sweary bit of theatre that just felt satisfying. There was barely a dud in the production, but Marco Chiappi was a standout as Alceste – he pitched the wit and snarl perfectly. Apart from a few minor blemishes (one particularly crap slap), it’s a remarkably polished production… as it should be, really. After all, it’s not really “Fringe”, is it? But I’m bound to say that, aren’t I… because, for a huge chunk of the year, I’m a little misanthropic too.

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