A Lesson In Love And Fate
22 November 1992
ANTHILL’S staging of Moliere’s first great comedy in verse, the fifth of his plays they have done, continues a tradition of excellence, augmented by the arrival at last of decent seating for the audience in their new home at The Gasworks Theatre.
Once more the famous French satirist is honored in fine style under Jean-Pierre Mignon’s direction, with his ensemble of players, made up of Humphrey Bower, Peter Finlay, Julie Forsyth, Nadine Garner, Ernie Gray, Alex Menglet and Ian Scott, performing with a very smooth classical skill.
The play runs on a little too long, but in the process the production extracts everything possible from the rich story and text, set in sparkling verse, which makes it point scoring all the more acute. The English version translation, by Richard Wilbur, while loyal to the idiom of the time, 1662, still has a modern edge to it.
`The School For Wives’ is a sly and wry commentary on the tyranny of power for selfish ends and how fate will not be mocked by attempts to manipulate it.
When it first premiered at the Palais-Royal Theatre in Paris it caused a scandal, with Moliere, who was himself playing the lead, being accused of obscene double-entendres, vulgarity and immorality. Its ensuing success was further guaranteed by its performance at the Court, reportedly having Louis XIV, Moliere’s patron, holding his sides with laughter.
The play is about a 42-year-old provincial bourgeois, Arnolphe, who has his eye on a young girl, Agnes, as a future bride ever since she was four, 13 years ago and made her his ward. To ensure her continuing naivete and dependency on him, he had her raised in a convent. All of this was because of his obsession to keep her unsullied by the ways of the world, so he can have her all to himself. There is a suggestion that Moliere might have been reflecting on his own marriage to a much younger woman.
ARNOLPHE is overwhelmed with the threat of being cuckolded, and keeps Agnes as a bride-in-training until he believes she is ready to become finally his. But, as Fate would have it, she meets and falls in love with a younger man, Horace, and the pair consistently thwart Arnolphe’s every attempt to impose his will.
The play runs through a series of very amusing events with Arnolphe being defeated at every turn of his devious mind. It is brimming with the betrayal, hypocrisy, deceit and decency, with great posturing among the players in the traditional Moliere style, with the determination of the hearts of the two young lovers contrasting sharply against the darkness of the plotting so-called guardian.
One of the funniest elements is what Moliere could not have foreseen _ or maybe he did _ with the male domination and control of women contrasting so strongly with attitudes 330 years later, in these liberated times when women have fought so hard for their equality and freedom.
On a minimalist set, in red, white and blue, designed by Fred Mechoui, the play depends very much on the text and the ability of the players to sustain the energy and interest as well as the humor.
This they do with gusto and polish, especially Ernie Gray as Arnolphe, who shows a remarkable range of expression as he goes through his prolonged time of self-inflicted torment. It is a performance of great professionalism in timing, voice and body, and after his sensitive portrayal of `The Idiot’ at TheatreWorks, shows his flair for humor.
Of the others, Julie Forsyth and Ian Scott have a high old time as the two servants entrusted and enforced by their crazed master to keep Agnes from what he fears most. Nadine Garner and Humphrey Bower are full of frivolity and sweet reason as the young lovers. The other actors are equally up to the lesser parts in this very good production, which confirms how far Anthill has come.