Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 11 June 2016
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Beautifully staged and excellently acted, the Lyceum’s premiere of Liz Lochhead’s Thon Man Moliere is a charming and largely compelling production.
Lochhead, of course, has provided several justly celebrated Scots translations of the great French comic playwright, beginning with her groundbreaking Tartuffe. Here, she dramatises the writer’s life, mixing fact and fiction, with mixed results.
The Moliere presented here is a man who can skewer others’ foibles while lacking any kind of awareness of his own faults. He also lacks much of an instinct for self-preservation and treats those around him abominably. That he is so sympathetic is largely due to Jimmy Chisholm’s performance, which combines charm, rhythm, timing and just enough variety-style playing to the gallery.
His long-suffering partner in the theatre and former lover Madeleine Bejart, meanwhile, is stunningly portrayed by Siobhan Redmond, in a performance that is often closer to tragedy than comedy.
Despite the sterling efforts of the whole cast, there is a distinct lack of sparkle throughout large sections of a play that seems overstretched. There is a sharply demotic springiness to some of the text that crackles with energy and life, while at other times it is strangely flat, or too ready to settle for an obvious laugh. While there are plenty of humorous moments, too often it is through deployment of familiar tropes, rather than any new twist on them.
What is noticeable is that there is much more life when large sections of Moliere’ works are interpolated (those that Lochhead has translated, naturally enough). These have a fizz and comic liveliness that is missing elsewhere.
Some of the structure and characterisation that most cleverly echoes French drama of Moliere’s time, moreover, end up detracting from the storyline. As in a Racine tragedy, it is noticeable that all of the main events take place offstage, with characters informing others of them onstage. While this is cleverly done – notably in an old school trouser-dropping backstage farce – it does nothing for the tension, with many of the figures apparently pivotal to the story simply failing to put in an appearance.
James Anthony Pearson and Steven McNicoll. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
Commedia dell’arte-style stock characters, furthermore, do not quite work. The deployment of Steven McNicoll’s immense comic talents as the ‘not entirely heterosexual’ actor Gros-Rene means that the characterisation is largely successful and three-dimensional, but others’ descriptions of him are uncomfortably reminiscent of less fondly remembered 70s sitcoms.
James Anthony Pearson does a similarly sterling job as the lascivious, ‘double-jointed’ juvenile lead Baron, but the character is also worryingly underdeveloped.
The female characters fare much better. Sarah Miele’s ingenue Menou, who at first believes her mother Madeleine to be her sister, is carefully and emotionally played. Nicola Roy, meanwhile, gives the confused and conniving Therese real substance.
The company’s maid, Toinette, is a distillation of all of Moliere’s preternaturally aware, morally grounded voice-of-reason servants, and is played by Molly Innes with nailed-on, downbeat timing.
There are tableau-like scenes beautifully lit by Chris Davey that make use of Neil Munro’s expansive set, and dumb-show interludes that draw attention to their own artificiality and theatricality.
Molly Innes and Sarah Miele. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
This is a running theme throughout. It is stressed – perhaps overstressed – that Moliere only really loves drama, and believes in the cure-all powers of ‘Doctor Theatre’. The playhouse itself is a main theme here, with the elegiac coda serving as a fitting farewell to the Lyceum’s old regime. In the end, however, it comes across as just a little too artificial.
Comparisons with those translations, while entirely unfair, have to be made – particularly when we are reminded of them so often – and this is bound to seem less funny, less profound, less dramatically resonant.
However, while the play can be criticised, there can be very little complaint about what the company have done with it. It is beautifully directed by Tony Cownie and impeccably performed, with every last drop of meaning and emotion wrung out of what is – on its own terms – a satisfying production.
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Friday 20 May – Saturday 11 June 2016
Evenings: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30 pm;
Matinees: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.00 pm
Tickets from http://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/thon-man-moliere