Sara Tophm as Célimène and Ben Carlson as Alceste. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Reviewed by James Karas
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has mounted a production of Moliere’s The Misanthrope that is done to perfection. Yes, that is a grandiose statement that begs all kinds of replies, some none too pleasant. But I sat through the performance on opening night at the Festival Theatre and was simply enthralled. It was as if I were seeing the play for the first time and Richard Wilbur’s rhyming couplets came pouring out of the actors’ mouths sounding fresh, colloquial and simply wonderful.
The Misanthrope premiered in 1666 to mediocre reviews. Since then it has joined the rarefied company of great comedies that stretches from Aristophanes to Shaw. It was written in rhyming couplets and there have been a number of translations into English, bath in prose and poetry, but none as successful as Richard Wilbur’s rhyming couplets which first appeared in 1955.
Director David Grindley, Set designer John Lee Beatty and Costume Designer Robin Fraser Paye have opted for the high elegance and sophistication of the 18th century. The elegant set with its chandeliers, fancy doors and soft curtains evokes refined tastes and manners in an aristocratic milieu.
The cast deliver the mellifluous and colloquial lines in a perfect pitch meaning they are aware that they are speaking in rhyming couplets but without sounding stilted. The translation is so fluid that they are able to do that.
Ben Carlson plays Alceste, the Parisian who despises hypocrisy, dishonesty, cant and bad writing. He would rather lose everything than stoop to flattery and false friendship. Carlson is simply marvelous.
His opposite is Célimène, a coquettish young woman who practices exactly what Alceste fulminates against. She has many admirers and lovers and the last thing she says to any of them is the truth. The problem is that Alceste is in love with her and when it comes to love, all principles go to hell. Sara Topham is a beautiful Célimène who can manipulate men, stand up to the nosey Arsinoé and deliver a smashing performance.
The other side of the Célimène coin is the officious and puritanical Arsinoé who attempts to castigate Célimène for her immorality. In one of those scenes that are a sheer joy to watch, Célimène gives Arsinoé her comeuppance. It is here that the repartee between the two woman reaches extraordinary heights because of the poetry. It would be fun in prose but it is much better in verse.
Juan Chioran plays Philinte, Alceste’s friend who has a more rational and compromising view of the world. He attempts to be the voice of reason and Chioran is exceptional in the role. His companion in that regard in Eliante played well by Martha Farrell.
The two foppish marquesses, Clitandre and Acaste, played by Steve Ross and Trent Purdy respectively are stock fools who chase the beautiful Célimène and they are good for a few laughs. Peter Hutt is very good as the would-be poet Oronte.
Director Grindley has hit the perfect pace and created the proper atmosphere for the play. If the rhyming couplets were spoken a bit faster, they would have been difficult to follow at times; more slowly and they would have bored us. Grindley finds just the right speed. He never lets the verse become stilted or in the way of the comedy or drama of the play. This is intelligent, perceptive and superb directing.
It is sometimes easier to criticize than to praise but I have no criticism to offer, only praise. As such it is best to shut up and recommend that you not miss this production of this great play.
The Misanthrope by Moliere, translated by Richard Wilbur opened on August 12 and will run until October 29, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca