Moliere’s original Alceste is a 17th century French aristocrat who sets the cat among the pompadours by refusing to conform to the conventions of courtly politesse and calling out poseurs and dilettantes.
This version, adapted by Justin Fleming and directed by Lee Lewis transposes the story to the present day and the world of pop entertainment.
It’s a clever move. Where else (apart from Hollywood, perhaps) are words like “genius” and “revolutionary” tossed about so freely? Where else are the emperors so thinly clothed?
Alceste is a music industry maven in crisis. The culture of fawning and pocket-pissing has finally become intolerable and so she has committed herself to telling the world exactly what she thinks of it.
But speaking the unvarnished truth isn’t going to win you many friends in environment packed with so many easily-pricked ego bubbles. Alceste ends up in a nasty lawsuit from Orton, a smug American songwriter whose talent she publicly disses.
And yet Alceste can’t help but be in love with the poster boy for contemporary vacuity, Cymbeline, an omni-sexual pop star and clotheshorse half her age.
Can Alceste reconcile her uncompromising social stance with the yearnings of her unruly heart?
As in his versions of Tartuffe and The Literati, Fleming pays playful tribute to Moliere’s wordplay, tailoring its rhyme schemes to suit the subject of the scene. His verbal wit is dazzling at times and the friction he generates from rubbing the poetic against Aussie colloquial can leave you guffawing.
But there are times also when the language feels tonally out-of-touch with the world described on stage, most obviously in Alceste’s praising of the lyrical brilliance of Waltzing Matilda. It sits oddly in this context.
It’s a technically difficult text to deliver and requires the audience to tune in for much of the first act, one largely devoted to lengthy dialogue between Danielle Cormack’s Alceste and Rebecca Massey (corporate lawyer and friend Philippa) and set in a maze of flight cases and wardrobe racks.
Once the parameters of the world and Alceste’s dilemma is established, the scenes become more populated, and Dan Potra’s stage design opens up, The Misanthrope begins to sing. The performances are good throughout but there’s some more elasticity to be found in the delivery. No doubt it will as the show beds in.
Cormack plays Alceste as an industry cougar with much tossing of hair (humorously sent up by Massey at one point), a purposeful stride and a smoky crack in her voice.
Ben Gerrard preens perfectly as Cymbeline, an auto-tuned pop god who changes outfits every two minutes. He lip-syncs Roger Lock and Max Lambert’s pastiche electro-pop flawlessly (astride a unicorn at one point in the proceedings).
Massey’s comic instincts serve her well as Philippa tentatively explores her connection with Cymbeline’s sister/stylist Eleanor (Catherine Davies).
There’s good comic interplay between Hamish Michael (doubling as the cocksure Orton, and as Cleveland, one of Cymbeline’s acolytes), Anthony Taufa (Angus) and Simon Burke as the cynical Arsenio.
It doesn’t sparkle quite as consistently and brilliantly as Lewis and Fleming’s previous collaboration The Literati, but The Misanthrope is still good company.