By Moliere adapted by Martin Crimp
Nangyang Academy of Fine Art – March 2014
Choosing a contemporary play for 6 women and 3 men is not easy; the economics of theatre mean they are few and far between, and, as per usual, favour male rather than female roles. And because contemporary theatre tends to focus on ‘real-life’ the plays are often lacking the flexibility to alter the characters sex.
At the same time as looking for a play I was curating and directing a festival supporting a production of The Good Person of Sichuan (a play which has gender issues at its core). One element of that festival was a short one-person play performed by both a male and female actor exploring how audiences react to an identical story told by both sexes. They were performed back to back so audiences were able to examine the judgements they made about characters based purely on their sex and not necessarily their actions; examining what we do and do not forgive, what we make allowances for, assume, or simply let our prejudices get away with.
As results of that experience I decided not to give myself a hard time finding the right gender mix in a script but simply find a good play.
The need for a large cast took me to the classics and a wish to play with satire led me straight to the door of the master satirist himself, Moliere.
Moliere was a writer who trod a very fine line, mercilessly satirising and blatantly criticising the court of his number one fan, Louis XIV, whilst entertaining the masses with his radical new style of sharp and dangerous comic theatre. By the time The Misanthrope was written in 1666 he had thrown off his commedia del arte past, and was presenting a more naturalistic style that showed real people on stage in real situations.
By luck, whilst searching for a good translation of the play, I came across the Martin Crimp version from 1996. Crimp is a writer who trod a similar dangerous path. Coming out of the politically turbulent Britain of the 1980s Crimp challenged theatre to reassess what it was, he deconstructed form, opened up preconceptions of character and stuck two fingers up to the theatre establishment. This, of course, made him an ideal playwright to adapt a Moliere play. Crimp re-imagines The Misanthrope focussing on a world he knew all too well, the hypocritical, self congratulatory, self-indulgent, double standard world of London theatre and the industry itself.
This felt a perfect play to bring to Nafa.
And this brings me back to the gender balance of the characters. After spending some time working on the piece with the female actors assuming male roles, it struck me how ludicrous that was; it didn’t really matter what gender the characters were. By changing a few personal pronouns we are simply looking at relationships from a different angle, making it a slightly different play.
The Misanthrope, like all great plays, has evolved again, changed and adapted, found an in-road with a new audience, surely one of the basic functions of theatre. As an audience, being thrown the unexpected, being asked to consider our own preconceptions and maybe prejudices, enables us to re-see the play, watch it more closely and hear what the play is saying; we put aside judgements as to what a male or female character should do, we just see what humans actually do do.