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The Miser

"You’re never funny on your own"

The Miser's Michelle Doake reveals some of the secrets behind one of the funniest performances of the year.

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Show: The Miser
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Seven Tips for Classic Comedy

Date: 18 Mar 2019

There’s no scrimping on funny business in Bell Shakespeare’s production of Moliere’s comedy The Miser and the biggest laughs are thanks to Michelle Doake, who brings the house down as the scheming society matchmaker Frosine.

Doake says that while a lot of her performance is created in-the-moment, she’s also drawn inspiration from some of her heroes – mostly women, mostly British.

“I adore Maggie Smith and Judi Dench,” she says. “There is probably a bit of Maggie Smith in my performance. I’ve recently watched some footage from 50 years ago of her in [Noel Coward’s] Hay Fever, and her timing and largesse and her fruitiness … she was just so delicious.

“Then there was a day in rehearsals where I thought, ‘what would this scene be like if Frosine was Eddie from Ab Fab?’ So there’s a bit of that in the DNA of it as well. Frosine is like a big bird, she’s fluttering her feathers and posing all the time. So there’s a bit of Maggie and Eddie, a bit of peacock and a bit of bogan Aussie bin chicken.”

And that’s not all … We asked Michelle to reveal a few of her comic secrets.

1. A funny first entrance

“I started with the idea of confidence,” Doake says. “Frosine is a woman who swans into society homes, and has the ability to ingratiate and to charm. There’s a level of trust offered her. We learn that Harpagon [played by John Bell] will believe anything – you can’t tell him enough lies. So I have free reign to just go for it. I wanted to leave the audience guessing; one moment she is charming and the next totally false.”

2. Funny set pieces

“We rehearsed a lot with Nigel Poulton, the show’s movement director and coach. There are a lot of things to do like moving boxes, moving the couch, and coming in and out of doors and slamming them. So we started making a rhythmic map for the journey of the play. As a former dancer, it’s very natural for me to think speed and space and how to change it up.”

3. Dress to impress

“Costume really informs this performance. Frosine is really into her threads. She thinks she’s quite fabulous and she’s always striking poses, showing off the cuffs on her jacket or her ankles and shoes. She’s very tactile and always stroking everything.

I requested pockets in the jacket just so that was another way Frosine could choose to stand. My lovely friend [actor] Helen Thomson said she kept looking at my shoes because I danced around with these little tiny leather boots. She was laughing at my feet!”

4. Work the face

“Frosine has this slightly white face with heavily red cheeks and pursed drawn-on lips. It’s a design choice. So I developed a thing where everything is very forward with the mouth.

My character is always smiling and trying to draw Harpagon in, thinking she’s quite attractive. I guess that’s a little bit like Edina, too. When she would pull her teeth back, her smile was like a shark, very disconcerting …”

5. Double takes and sudden stops

“One of the exercises we did for fun in rehearsals was working on our double takes and triple takes – even a quadruple take!

And we did a lot of moving through the space at different speeds. If we moved very slowly, could we still be seen? If I open the door and creep in, no one sees me. But if I come in like this! People see me!

I always think of John Cleese. He used that manic physicality in his body and then would just stop, freeze like a rabbit in a spotlight. The incongruity in that moment is hilarious.”

6. Funny walks and silly dances

“There’s a scenes when I’m teaching John’s character how to be sexy. It comes from me looking up John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and that walk down the street he does. It starts off fairly simply with a hip thrust and then we add the arms. Then we add a bit of a bounce in the neck … But of course John looks like an old rooster, then he falls over and has a geriatric meltdown.

None of that is in the script. Justin Fleming didn’t write, ‘pause for a silly walk’. It all came from rehearsal.

John keeps building on what he did on opening night and now he’s all over the place. It’s hilarious. I’ve had to really stop myself laughing. He’s incredibly fit, that man, unstoppable.”

7. Group effort

“Comedy absolutely requires the attention and the skill and the focus of everyone on stage. You’re never funny on your own. You have to be given the space and the full attention and focus. All the heads have to snap in your direction or it doesn’t work.

You’re only as good and as interesting as the people you’re on stage with and everyone in this cast is a comic actor. When I’m backstage – I don’t come on for about 45 minutes – I love listening to the show. The consistency of each performance is really remarkable. I’m so impressed with everyone.”

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