The School for Wives, by Moliere, trans. Justin Fleming, Bell Shakespeare Company, Arts Centre Until September 22.
The best Bell Shakespeare show I ever saw was Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring John Bell and Robyn Nevin as James and Mary Tyrone. It might even be fair to suggest that the company has a better track record when it steps back from the Bard and expands its view of classic drama.
On her last outing with Bell, Lee Lewis mounted a playful and elegiac Twelfth Night haunted by the shadow of the Black Saturday bushfires. Her take on Moliere’s The School for Wives is less cogently imagined and less impressive.
Many an Australian production has stumbled at the hurdle of farce, and this one can’t seem to find a stable style that animates Moliere’s merciless wit in modern idiom. It just isn’t funny enough. Compared to Richard Bean’s hilarious adaptation of the 18th century Goldoni farce One Man, Two Guv’nors (a sell-out at London’s National Theatre that will be seen here next year) it’s pretty lame.
The rich and cynical Arnolde (John Adam) lives in mortal fear of being humiliated by his wife’s adultery. He hatches a plan to raise his spouse-to-be in a convent. Agnes (Harriet Dyer) grows up ignorant of the world, but when the young Horace (Mayne Wyatt) steals her heart, she bends all her logic and feeling towards pursuing him.
Justin Fleming’s jouncy verse translation captures Arnolde’s misogyny and chauvinism, and allows the elaborate rhetorical exchanges to surge with ridiculousness and verbal ostentation. The performers handle it rather effortlessly, and if you’ve never seen the play, this production at least gives a fluid sense of Moliere’s skill.
Unfortunately, the words aren’t always matched by visual or comic flair or an involving use of space. Referencing silent cinema, the portable set doesn’t create a coherent world. The physical theatre remains underdeveloped in conception and overplayed in practice; the characterisations don’t tend to create a complex enough tension between artifice and sincerity, buffoonery and seriousness.
It isn’t really the acting: Adam’s saturnine charisma and Dyer’s innocent wiles have their charms. It is more a cultural problem. When Bean adapted Goldoni, he made it his own by reaching for an established tradition of British comedy. This adaptation of Moliere grasps half-heartedly at Australian pantomime, and fails to make it stick.