Writer: Ranjit Bolt, adapted from Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes
Director: Hamish Glen
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes, a satire on academic pretension and female education, was written and premiered in the late 17th century. Ranjit Bolt has translated it and relocated the action to the 1980s, the decade of the yuppie; a good choice given the characters’ obsessions with philosophy, pretentious art and money.
Philaminte is the powerful matriarch of a well-off family consisting of her strangely bitter academic daughter Armande; the younger, less academic but more vivacious Henriette; and the dominated husband Chrysale. Both Philaminte and Armande profess to love the higher things in life – art, philosophy – rather than the base – men, money. Indeed, they seek to improve the minds of their servants and when they are unable to improve that of Martine, the maid, she is unceremoniously sacked. Henriette claims to prize true love over the academic life and also seems to eschew money.
Clitandre, a personable, level-headed, but not very well-off young man, wants to marry Henriette; but he does not have the arty credentials of “poet” Trissotin (imagine an impossibly pompous and less talented McGonagall), Philaminte’s choice. So the battle lines are drawn: on one side, Trissotin, Armande, Philaminte and her sister-in-law Belise; on the other Henriette, Clitendre, Chrysale and his brother Ariste. In the farce that follows, the true colours and motivations of the characters become clear to the audience – but will Philaminte have her own epiphany and allow Henriette to marry the man of her choice? Will there be a happy ending?
This is a fast-moving farce, written in verse, as was the original, with clever and intricate dialogue from Bolt. Movement around the stage is carefully choreographed. The sure hand of director Hamish Glen, the Belgrade’s Artistic Director since 2003, ensures that the characters are well rounded and sympathetic – even the ladies who are the butts of most of the jokes.
Peter Temple succeeds in making Chrysale a thoroughly decent man. His concern for his daughters’ happiness is well drawn – as is his subservience to Philaminte, for example, when he promises to reinstate Martine, but his attempt to stand up to his wife results in ignominious failure and a swift retreat. Julia Watson’s Philaminte never descends into the grotesque – her well-meaning plans for Henriette are warped by her obsession with literature, poetry and academia in general.
Paul Trussell is wonderfully over-the-top as poet Trissotin, blind to criticism playing up to the adulation of the women of the house.
Katherine Manners’ makes Armande a forceful yet vulnerable character; at first one cannot see any redeeming features in her during her diatribe against men. Bit by bit, however, Manners enables us to see the vulnerable person underneath, one who is only now understanding the consequences of her younger self’s actions.
Miriam Edwards’ Martine is the very antithesis of the other women – happy to have found her niche, she enjoys her job and is good at it. Edwards makes her similarly exaggerated and likeable. An overtly comic foil, she nevertheless speaks good sense. Making her accent Brummie alongside the cultured tones of the family and their friends accentuates the class difference, but maybe hints at a touch of directorial laziness.
The happy couple, Joshua Miles as Clitandre and Vanessa Schofield as Henriette, are a good contrast to the extremes of behaviour of everyone else in the house, being the epitome of normal and sensible behaviour.
The two-level set from Libby Watson effectively evokes the 1980s with its monochromatic simplicity; the heaving bookshelves clearly signal that this is a household that considers itself well-read.
Molière’s barbs at the chattering classes are well-aimed and hit their targets squarely. He delights in exposing hypocrisy, but this is primarily a hugely enjoyable farce that rewards those watching. Another success from the Belgrade and Hamish Glen.
Runs until 20 February 2016 | Image: Robert Day