Despite his high reputation in France, Molière is generally regarded as box-office poison in this country. Certainly the sparse audience at the Piccadilly Theatre to view Sir Peter Hall s latest attempt to bring European classics to the English stage seemed to give credence to this viewpoint. This is a pity, for Ranjit Bolt s version of The Misanthrope has radically updated the play. His translation may be far removed from Molière s original text, but justly so - its wit and pace brings this play to life.
The plot centres on Alceste, the misanthrope of the title. His disgust with the human race stems from his dislike of the fawning and flattery that bedevilled the French court as indicated by the opening image of the king exposing his posterior to the arse-lickers and crawlers in court. In despair at the sycophancy he sees around him, he expresses his determination to be truthful at all times.
An honourable intention perhaps. But Alceste s honesty and frankness are severely tried by the object of his affections, Célimène, a compulsive flirt who surrounds herself with a bevy of simpering admirers.
As Alceste, Michael Pennington conveys the appropriate air of honesty but doesn t really bring out the self-righteousness of the character - and let s face it, he is a sanctimonious prig (Alceste that is).
Among the strong supporting cast, Peter Bowles stands out as Oronte, a pretentious would-be poet whose abysmal verse attracts Alceste s derision, and Anna Carteret shines as a malicious gossip who inspires Alceste to fits of jealousy. The only jarring note in the production is Elaine Page s Célimène. She simply lacks the presence to make you believe that here is a woman who could attract a host of admirers, or indeed any admirers at all.
On the whole though, Hall s production vividly captures the spirit of Molière s work and might even convince a few people that there is some merit in non-English texts. That would surely be a bonus.