With an energetic cast and Peter Evans’ strong direction, Bell Shakespeare’s production of The Miser proves that Molière’s satire is still right on the money.

By Alison Croggon.

Bell Shakespeare’s The Miser

The cast of Bell Shakespeare’s 'The Miser'.
The cast of Bell Shakespeare’s 'The Miser'.
Credit: Prudence Upton

Bell Shakespeare’s production of Molière’s The Miser reminded me that audiences have been laughing at rich people for centuries. Mockery, I suppose, is one of the few revenges easily available to the poor.

But Molière’s 17th-century comedy remains perennial because privilege never goes away. In a time when the wealth gap exceeds even the obscene inequality of the Ancien Régime, The Miser feels particularly pertinent, although I’m not certain whether it is more depressing or reassuring that, after all these centuries, we’re still making fun of the same human foibles.

In The Miser, the central sin is avarice – the pathology that values money above all other things. Harpagon, the miser of the title, steals oats from his horses, so skeletal they can’t draw his carriages. His ambitions for his children are not about their wellbeing but about his own wealth.

Vice, says Molière, begets vice.

Harpagon’s avarice corrupts everyone in the play. His children – Élise and Cléante, who is in love with Mariane, the woman Harpagon decides to marry – are forced to lie in order to conceal their true affections from their father. Élise’s lover, Valère, turns to flattery, obsequiously agreeing with Harpagon’s every tyrannical word, the better to manipulate him. The moral collapse culminates with theft, when Harpagon’s servant La Flèche steals the 10,000 gold crowns the miser has buried in his garden.

Molière breaks this cycle of corruption with a deus ex machina ending – a long-lost family is reunited, the lovers are able to marry their beloved and everyone ends up with their heart’s desire. Even the miser gets what he wants. The final image in this production is of Harpagon alone on a darkening stage, clutching his money to his breast.

Molière pinched some of the plot and a few scenes from Aulularia (The Little Pot) by the Roman playwright Plautus, which concerns a miser’s paranoid obsession with a pot of gold he has buried in his house, with various shenanigans around the marriage of his daughter. Plautus in turn drew from classical Greek comedies, although the scholarship on Aulularia is a little more speculative: it’s supposedly based on a text titled Dyskolos by the 4th-century BCE playwright Menander. And no doubt Menander stole his idea from a Phoenician storyteller, who was probably a woman.

Despite their classical antecedents, Molière’s plays, including The Miser, feel modern because contemporary comedies draw on the same insights and techniques he exploited. The signature self-consciousness of Arrested Development, for instance, in which the action cuts away to news reports or web pages that directly contradict a character’s assertion of truth, evolved from Molière’s meta-theatrical mischief.

One of the major planks of his humour is the gap in perception between how characters see themselves and how they are perceived by others. And his plots are structured on the compounding disasters of deceit – someone lies, or improvises a lie, which in turn prompts cascading complications.

All these machineries are evident in the Bell Shakespeare production, now on at Arts Centre Melbourne. Director Peter Evans and his team deliver elegant, robustly performed theatre.

Justin Fleming’s adaptation sedulously follows the original play. He brings a vernacular sparkle to the language, although it’s fair to say that most of the best jokes – the meta-theatrical winks at the audience, the absurdly exaggerated characterisations and so on – remain Molière’s. The production’s major innovation is making Élise (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) and Valère (Jessica Tovey) same-sex lovers, although this is more a casting decision than anything else, having no effect at all on the text.

Evans has been developing stylised physical performance for many years now, with varying degrees of success. In The Miser, he gets the tricky balance about right between the alienations of artifice and the empathy of recognition. In lieu of stagehands moving the production’s major prop – a turquoise blue chaise longue – there are short ballets between scenes in which the secondary characters enter and reset the stage. These breaths of fancy, underlaid by Max Lyandvert’s lyrical – sometimes, it must be said, rather too lyrical – score, establish a sense of heightened theatricality, but they stay this side of cute and give the action much of its lightness.

Anna Tregloan’s design, opulently lit by Matt Cox, creates a stage reality that is a frothy amalgam of the 17th and 21st centuries. The set is basically a gold back wall punctured by four black doors, with three portable terrariums standing in for the garden in which Harpagon has buried his 10,000 gold crowns. The costumes are a fantasia of clear colours – green, pink, blue – and ridiculous wigs. As with the movement, there’s a sense of breathable fantasy: Cléante wears a frock coat and green wig, but he’s barefoot, his shirt untucked, while his father gets about in brown pants and braces.

The true vitality of The Miser exists in the performances. It’s well cast, and the actors’ energy, a little dim in the first half, finally catches fire after interval. Among the cast in general there’s a lot of polished stage play, a sense of ensemble fun that is extremely enjoyable to watch.

Harpagon is played by John Bell with repellently vulgar relish. Wearing a grotesque black toupee and gold shoes, he picks his nose, scratches his arse and gurns his way into horrified disfavour with his chosen bride, Mariane (Elizabeth Nabben). Michelle Doake, who plays the marriage broker Frosine in a red wig and mauve pantsuit, is another standout. One of the production’s highlights is a scene between Bell and Doake – Frosine’s lecherous greed for what she can con out of Harpagon has Doake all but fucking the furniture, while Bell’s face is a grinning, lewd mask, at once ludicrous and empty.

The least satisfying aspect of this production is the translation. Justin Fleming seems to have cornered the Australian Molière market: The Miser is his fifth adaptation, after Tartuffe, The School for Wives, The Misanthrope and The Literati. His previous adaptations are all in rhyming verse, so I guess it’s on-brand of him to do the same to The Miser. Still, he had every excuse to spare us, since it was originally written in prose.

I’ve never found Fleming’s rhymes felicitous. For me, they’re the aural equivalent of being hit with a rubber hammer every couple of lines. He serves up every fault of doggerel – predictable or forced rhymes, clunky scansions, lines padded out with extra words to make up the rhythm. It’s certainly hard to discern from these translations why the French so admire Molière’s plays for their poetry.

The justification for rhyming this translation seems to be that Molière was dying of tuberculosis while writing The Miser and was therefore too weak for the rigours of verse. This, it’s hinted, is what the play was meant to be. But Molière wrote at least eight plays after The Miser, and his creative forces burned brightly right to the end, despite the illness that eventually killed him. The Imaginary Invalid, his final play – in which he famously died playing the title role – is written in both verse and prose.

The more interesting truth is that Molière broke the conventions of the 17th-century French stage. At the time, everybody was writing 12-syllable Alexandrine couplets – neoclassicism wasn’t just a convention, it was enforced by Cardinal Richelieu’s Académie française, which among other things sought to control and regulate theatrical forms. These stifling conventions are why, when the poet Arthur Rimbaud “broke the Alexandrine” with his poem “Qu’est-ce pour nous, mon coeur” (“What is it for us, my heart”) in 1872, the year after the Paris Commune, it was shocking in a way that has no parallel in English poetry. It shook not only aesthetic but also social proprieties.

You could argue Fleming is himself challenging the conventions of a contemporary prose stage, but this verse does no favours for poetry. In the two-and-a-half hours of The Miser, there was maybe one occasion when the conscious artifice of a bad rhyme made me laugh. The major effect was a muffling of the script. Despite the efforts of the cast, all that prosodic padding unfocused the dialogue and dragged on the action, most conspicuously before interval. The text worked best of all when – as was the case in John Bell’s masterly performance – the rhymes were ignored altogether.

Despite this, The Miser is the most enjoyable Bell Shakespeare production I’ve seen since Evans’ genuinely magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2013. It’s well worth your time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Saving grace".

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Alison Croggon is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.

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