“Passion has seized hold of me” exclaims the renowned actor/playwright, as he tells his long-time lover that he is about to marry her younger sister - or the girl whom he takes to be her younger sister - and thus he propels himself, eventually, into the vengeful hands of the Church, which, in the person of the Archbishop of Paris, has decided that Molière and his plays are atheist abominations, taking particular exception to the hypocritical priest, Tartuffe.
Bulgakov’s biting satire on the Stalinist regime, in Michael Glenny’s lucid translation, miraculously captures the essence of the court of Louis XIV in the 1660s, and of backstage life at the Palais-Royal where Molière wrote, directed, acted, and managed the theatre for 14 years. It also seethes with Bulgakov’s “deep scepticism” about the Russian Revolution. Written in 1929, and almost immediately banned, it didn’t see the light of day until seven years later, when it became a huge popular success. But it finished Bulgakov’s theatrical career. So, it’s a play dripping with dramatic history, and it’s remarkable that its only previous UK production was at the RSC in 1982.
The Finborough is renowned for unearthing neglected gems and this production, by Leverhulme Bursary recipient Blanche McIntyre, continues that tradition in grand style. Set and costume design, by Alex Marker and Penn O’Gara respectively, are outstanding, even if the cramped space does create one or two longeurs between exits and entrances.
As Molière, Justin Avoth doesn’t quite have the measure of the great comic actor at the height of his powers, but comes into his own in the second half when he captures all the anger and pathos of an artiste who feels himself to be betrayed and degraded. In a large and uniformly strong cast, Elizabeth Moynihan gives a beautifully measured performance as Molière’s lover, Madeleine, and Paul Brendan excels in the dual roles of theatre factotum and court jester. The King could easily have been portrayed as a colourless two-dimensional character, but Gyuri Sarossy gives him a laconic, mischievous quality that is utterly compelling.
I have a few reservations about the wisdom of placing a small balustrade in the centre of the audience (which invites audience members to lean forward or place drinks there, thus impeding sightlines), and the pacing of the production is, as yet, a little uneven. But these minor complaints aside, there is much to admire here.