This brilliantly conceived production by Adrian Brown of a lesser-known Molière play, still widely played in France but rarely seen here, is well worth the trip to the outer limits of Highgate, for the production values are high indeed with an ingeniously inspired and detailed set that serves for both outdoor and indoor scenes and costumes that are as sumptuous as any to be found on a West End stage.
This 17th century comedy has many parallels with its English counterparts of the Reformation, especially with William Wycherley's Country Wife. It tells the story of Arnolphe, an older man so afraid of marital infidelity that he keeps his beautiful young ward Agnes caged up in a country house and guarded by a pair of exceptionally simple servants, Alain and Georgette.
His plan, to mould the perfect wife, backfires on him when her innocence allows the attentions of a local lad, Horace, to overwhelm her to such an extent that she falls in love with him and he with her; parallels here to Miranda's awakening feelings on seeing her first real man in The Tempest. This comedic play twists and turns as Arnolphe tries to thwart the young man's intentions, having been constantly informed of them by the young man himself, as he is the son of a friend, who takes Arnolphe into his confidence, wanting his advice on how best to woo her and wrest her from the clutches of her guardian, one Monsieur de la Souche; not knowing that it is the name that Arnolphe has adopted for his new life in the country.
This Planet Theatre production has some fine performances, most notably Hayward Morse as Arnolphe, whose cocksure conspiratorial rapport with the audience is matched only by his later pained reactions which reveal his inner turmoil through false smiles and hang dog expressions that remind one of Terry Thomas and Captain Hook! He is well matched by David Osmond's eager, innocent, flamboyant young cavalier Horace and Damien Thomas's cool, rational Chrysalde.
A scandal in its time due to its open criticism of the ethics of marriage and the position and duty of a wife, it still shocks today in that it touches on questions of free love, and has undertones of paedophilia, especially in the light of recent cases where young girls have been kept hostage by fathers or lovers.