The Sisterhood – Leicester Sq Theatre, London

Writer: Ranjit Bolt (based onMolière’s Les Femmes savantes)
Director: Kate Napier
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright

For Armande, marriage is a “supremely nauseating word” and an institution that condemns women to spawning brats and worshipping a man. For Henriette, it means a loving husband and family (so long as she can marry the man she loves, Clitandre). Armande wants Henriette to join the intellectual sisterhood, to study philosophy and semiology and forget about the merely physical. Henriette reminds Armande that she might have thought differently if Clitandre had not rejected her. The spiky opening exchange between the two sisters gets this fast-moving satire off to a flying start, and it takes place beneath the ever-watchful portrait of their mother, a severe-looking matriarch and one of the femme savantes referred to in the title of Molière’s original play.

In a smart grey suit and red shirt, Candice Price plays Armande as a daughter who isn’t entirely comfortable taking after her mother. Maria Austin’s Henriette, in a loose white jumper, is used to being bossed around by her older sister and her mother, and to ignoring both. She’s more open to her feelings and less interested in a single-minded pursuit of rational inquiry. Her would-be husband agrees: A woman is not all mind – she has a body too, and he tends to fall in love with the ensemble.

Matthew Marrs plays Clitandre as a confident, clean-cut young man (Lorraine Lee, the costume designer, has him pitch perfect in a blazer and tie). And yet, like every other male within striking distance, he’s up against the female force that is Philaminte, played with magnificent hauteur by Rebecca Bell. Her overbearing character reminds us that powerful female role models who are the equal of men are not always admirable individuals, if they imitate the worst qualities of men. Like so many fathers before her, Philaminte thinks she’s “the best judge” of who her daughter should marry, and it’s not Clitandre but the poet and poseur Trissotin (in beret and purple cravat). Philaminte’s own sister, the insatiable cougar Belise (“half Caligula, half Erica Jong”), comically channels a very male appetite for philandering against all the odds.

Philaminte’s domineering attitude towards her own daughter (and towards her servant, Martine, who gets the sack for not fully appreciating Derrida and Saussure) should have every feminist in the audience rooting for her cardigan-wearing husband (“a bashful virgin wouldn’t be so meek”), and hoping that he finally stands up to her. He instigates “Operation Male Dominance” in which he sets out to regain control of the household. And so he does – with the help of two female characters, including Martine, the “wretched maid” who is vulgarity personified. Danielle Williams has great fun playing the commoner among intellectual aristocracy. Martine is the Brexit voter in a Remain household, despised for her ignorance (“she’s got the syntax of a three-year-old”) and for not talking proper. Her mishearing of “generative grammar” (“leave my granny out of it”) gets a big laugh.

Like Shakespeare’s shrew, Martine asserts that the husband’s word is final and that he ought to be respected in every particular while at the same time doing precisely as she pleases. She talks over Chrysale and demonstrates by her actions that she’s the one wearing the trousers, and more than equal to any man.

Rhyming iambic pentameters would seem a risky choice for anyone seeking to satirise intellectual pretentiousness. Ranjit Bolt’s adaptation, however, has the incisive clarity needed to keep us engaged with, and agape at, this family drama. The cast are all razor sharp in their delivery and comic timing, and sustain a rollicking pace for the entire running time of just over an hour. This is an equal opportunities satire in which neither sex escapes ridicule, and which shows us that the salons of 17th Century or 1980s’ Paris are not so different from our own living rooms.

Runs until 6 July 2016 | Image: Jamie Scott-Smith

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