Moliere To Be Seen And Savored
20 November 1992
THEATRE REVIEW – The School for Wives, by Moliere; translated by Richard Wilbur; directed by Jean-Pierre Mignon; with Ernie Gray, Nadine Garner, Humphrey Bower, Ian Scott, Julie Forsyth, Alex Menglet and Peter Finlay (Gasworks, Albert Park).
IN HIS 12 years with the Australian Nouveau Theatre, Jean-Pierre Mignon has established himself as the country’s leading exponent of the plays of Moliere. I remember with particular pleasure his stylish production of `The Misanthropist’, his robust version of `The Imaginary Invalid’ and his two versions of `Don Juan’ – one in Adelaide set in a pig-sty and the other, a peripatetic production using the then-derelict convent in Napier Street, South Melbourne.
`The School for Wives’ is a worthy addition to the list. First performed in 1663, it gave Moliere his first taste of theatrical success. Louis XIV is reported to have been in stitches of laughter.
It is not hard to see why. It is a delicious comedy that gives its small cast of seven ample opportunities for comic by-play. It could be done with subtlety and with a lighter hand. However, Mignon has decided – not unreasonably – to let his actors have their head. The result is an evening of unqualified pleasure.
An obsessive fear lies at the heart of many of Moliere’s comedies. In `The School for Wives’, it is a fear of being cuckolded. Rather than subject himself to possible public humiliation like other husbands, the middle-aged hero Arnolphe decides to protect himself by taking a simple, pliant wife who will obey his every whim, and he trains her from childhood.
The plan is fine in theory; but as Arnolphe discovers to his dismay, it takes no account of human nature. Agnes, the would-be bride, succumbs to the charms of an impetuous youth. Arnolphe’s elaborate attempts to keep her in ignorance of the facts of life have come to nothing.
It is a simple plot, kept simmering with the help of a few contrivances and a pair of two-timing servants. In its day the plot was considered scandalous -which of course ensured its success. Today it would not raise an eyebrow. None the less the jokes about errant wives and pompous foolish husbands still have the capacity to amuse.
The translation by Richard Wilbur, which preserves the verse format of the original, adds considerably to the evening’s fun.
Having filled the new Gasworks Theatre with a tonne or two of mud for the company’s opening production, `Life Is a Dream’, for the Melbourne Festival, Jean-Pierre Mignon has opted this time for a chaste conventional format. The play is set on a small platform stage. The sets and period costumes are basic to say the least. There is no conscious attempt to make this anything other than a night of poor rough theatre.
Yet thanks to the players, it works charmingly. The acting is in every case robust, and also inventive. Nadine Garner is suitably guileless and engaging as the bride-in-training, Humphrey Bower makes an eager and impetuous lover. As the duplicitous servants, Julie Forsyth and Ian Scott squeeze out every drop of humor that their parts allow.
But the real star of the evening is Ernie Gray. As the sober, earnest Arnolphe, he is a joy to watch. His movements are angular, his face expressive, whether he is rejoicing in his good fortune as a prospective husband or the picture of misery as a rejected lover.
Caricature is kept at bay, just.
In short, a production to be seen and savored.