Laughter is the best medicine, so the old adage goes. And even if Molière might not necessarily have believed it himself, his timeless comedies do their best to prove the point. In his last play, The Hypochondriac (or The Imaginary Invalid), the grandfather of farce also demonstrated the inverse: that medicine – or the quackery that passed for it in the 17th century – can also make for the best laughter.
Not that it did Molière much good either way. As a programme note reminds us, the Frenchman – whose title character Argan was inspired by some of his own health concerns – decided to play the role himself in the 1672 premiere; on the evening of the fourth performance, he suffered an on-stage haemorrhage and died later that night, at the age of 51. Imagine the guffaws.
There’s no shortage of them in this hysterical new version of The Hypochondriac by Richard Bean, who freshly mints Molière’s satire with well-aimed swipes at diet fads (“the worst was that ridiculous month when you ate nothing but meat … what kind of diet is that, it nearly killed you”), homeopathy and general new age flimflam. And the story’s quite amusing too.
Argan (Henry Goodman) decides to marry off his elder daughter (a delicate Carey Mulligan) to a young doctor so that he can receive free treatment and is generally so obsessed with his ailments that he’s oblivious to both the gold-digging schemes of his unfaithful younger wife (Ronni Ancona) and the misery of the daughter, in love with another suitor (Kris Marshall). Luckily, his loyal servant Toinette (Lyndsey Marshal) and his level-headed brother (Stephen Boxer) have a plan to show Argan the error of his ways.
From the moment that an infantilised Goodman appears, in nightclothes and bonnet on an oversized chair that doubles as a toilet, totting up his enemas and contemplating his bowel movements, he sits at the blustering but solid centre of a frenzy of action (much of it scatological – cue designer Giles Cadle’s eerily backlit jars of ‘specimens’ surrounding Argan’s living room) and an effective comic ensemble with only the occasional weak link.
The first half of Lindsay Posner’s boisterous production is sublimely funny – thanks especially to a consummate scene-stealing turn from John Marquez as the idiotic fiancé and a divine ‘improvised’ duet between Mulligan and Marshall’s secret amours. If the second loses comic momentum slightly, there’s compensation in a surprising, and sobering, sting in the tail.
Bean springs an abrupt, though cleverly signposted, ‘play-within-a-play’ twist in the closing moment that pays homage to Molière and his demise. There is a serious point here – just. But, like the production’s poster artwork – a sundae whipped up with colourful pills and tablets – this Hypochondriac is a delicious confection. A (heaping) spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down very nicely.