We haven’t seen a mainstage production of The Miser for 15 years in Sydney (an STC production in 2004) and the time seems ripe for another look at Moliere’s comedy.
His story (itself a riff on Roman sources) of an old skinflint who loves his money more than his children acquires a glimmer of topicality in times of rising intergenerational inequality and tension.
Here, in the house of Harpagon, the trickle-down effect has been squeezed to the thinnest pecuniary dribble. Despite having 10,000 gold crowns in his hidden strongbox, the place runs on fumes and resentment. He’s even been caught in the stables at night, stealing oats from his own starving horses.
Harpagon is alert to possible theft but completely oblivious to family matters. He has no idea, for example, that his children are both in love. Cleante is smitten with Mariane, the daughter of a local widow, and if he can raise the money, plans to elope with her. Elise, meanwhile, is weighing an upstairs-downstairs marriage to Harpagon’s steward, Valere.
But Harpagon has other plans, all of them inspired by avarice. He’s fixed Elise to marry a wealthy Neapolitan widower, Signor Anselm, and given that no dowry has been asked for, he intends to marry Mariane himself.
The Miser is the latest in a series of adaptations created by playwright Justin Fleming for Bell Shakespeare (beginning with 2014’s Tartuffe) and it’s something of a return to form after a lacklustre Misanthrope in 2018. Here, in a technically sharp and uncluttered production directed by Peter Evans, Fleming’s wit and rhyming mischief has room to sparkle.
An excellent cast makes light work of the technical demands of the text. Clarity and precision are vital and a good set of lungs is as important as comic timing when it comes to landing a punchline.
Sean O’Shea delivers a masterclass in heightened comic style, doubling as Cleante’s servant La Fleche and Signor Anselm. Jamie Oxenbould is dextrously funny as Master Jacques, Harpagon’s long-suffering groom and cook. Michelle Doake steals every scene as matchmaker Frosine.
Jessica Tovey (Valere), Harriet Gordon-Anderson (Elise), Elizabeth Nabben (Mariane), Damien Strouthos (Cleante) and Russell Smith (playing a police officer) perform strongly throughout.
John Bell is in splendid form as Harpagon, cutting a scruffy, crabby Albert Steptoe-like figure in designer Anna Tregloan’s otherwise brightly costumed world, before transforming himself into the most unappetising husband-to-be imaginable.
And later Bell pulls off the most difficult trick of all: making us care – just a bit – for this meanest of mean old codgers. He injects a note of existential terror into Harpagon’s distress at the loss of his loot, and after all the plot threads are tied into bows, he leaves us with an unexpectedly moving image of a miser’s folly.