If you want proof of the power of dramatic code, look no further than this play by Mikhail Bulgakov. Written in 1929, it is ostensibly about the travails endured by Molière after he penned his satire on religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe. Its real subject, however, is the plight of the artist in Stalin's Soviet Union. And both Michael Glenny's new translation and Blanche McIntyre's production never let us forget that what we are watching is a form of political masquerade.
Bulgakov exposes the dilemma faced by Molière: although a monarch at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, he is forced to truckle to Louis XIV in order to survive. After the storm raised by Tartuffe, the king bestows on Molière his patronage. But the dramatist is gradually ruined by the machinations of the church and the contradictions in his private life. When it is discovered that his young wife, Armande Béjart, is the daughter of his former mistress Madeleine, he is open to suspicions of incest.
Betrayed on all sides, Molière loses the king's protection, and famously dies on stage during a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire.
Occasionally, Bulgakov doctors history: Tartuffe actually had a lot of support at court, and the evidence suggests that Armande was the daughter of the Comte de Modene not Molière. But Bulgakov, who received an approving phone call from Stalin in 1930 only to see his work subjected to endless censorship, knew all about the arbitrariness of power. His play uses the 17th-century Catholic church as a chilling metaphor for the oppressive Soviet state. In one of the best scenes, we see a clerical cabal extort confessions from Molière's associates and threaten Madeleine with eternal damnation. And, when Louis XIV is told "the kingdom can't be kept in being without informers", the worlds of Paris and Moscow effortlessly merge.
McIntyre's production still needs to capture the energy of Molière's own plays. What it conveys admirably, however, is Bulgakov's mix of satire and seriousness: a spitting contest between an archbishop and a musketeer is as absurd as the portrait of hooded clerics operating like the secret police is terrifying. Alex Marker's set evokes the splendour of the Palais-Royal and Versailles, and there is excellent work from Justin Avoth as Molière, Antonia Kinlay as his wife and Ben Warwick as a venomous prince of the church. But it is Bulgakov's bravery that impresses, not just in writing the play but in informing the Soviet authorities that a writer who says he has no need of freedom is "like a fish publicly declaring it has no need of water".
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Guardian: Molière | Theatre review
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