Toby Jones, the West Yorkshire Playhouse's artist in residence (and most recently seen here in The Government Inspector and Jude Kelly's erratic King Lear) makes his directorial début with a respectful, often muted production of Molière's last play.
Jones's expertise lies in clowning and physical theatre, but rather than jazzing up The Hypochondriac with tomfoolery, he has chosen to stage it according to Molière's original conception of a comédie-ballet: the acts are interspersed with musical interludes (composed by Gary Yershon) and more thoroughly integrated into the plot than were Charpentier's original compositions. Thus, the prelude to Act One is a ballad which degenerates into a tussle with a rowdy "punter", allowing us to watch the first encounter of Argan's daughter with her beloved, and Act Four ends with a dog-Latin oratorio as Argan is supposedly inducted into the ranks of the medical profession. (The main plot, being standard Molière, scarcely needs recounting: young lovers are united in the face of parental opposition thanks to wily stratagems, with other deceits uncovered along the way.)
Edward Kemp's translation follows the playwright's mix of loquacious rhetoric and occasional grits of coarseness, and other than in the interludes Jones keeps his cast on a tight rein. Paul Shelley's Argan seems entirely at ease, even in love, with his imagined maladies, Jackie Morrison suffers her tribulations with serene fortitude as his daughter Angélique, and Ann Bryson restrains her natural vivacity with difficulty as the plain-speaking maidservant Toinette. Supporting players such as Tristan Sharps and Malcolm Scates (the latter appearing at one point as a gloriously po-faced and tedious suitor to Angélique) are denied the chance to cut loose in their several respective rôles.
All of this changes during the interval. Where Molière's Argan was invited off the stage to watch an Egyptian dance, Jones and Kemp follow the idea of the 1981 National Theatre production in taking him to see the author's own early play Le Médecin Volant. This is in fact staged in the theatre bar: a hilarious 20-minute burlesque condensed into GCSE Franglais, it displays Jones's primary strengths and engages the actors in much giggling, both rehearsed and spontaneous. Tellingly, it receives more and louder laughs than the 80-minute first half of the main play which preceded it.
Having been thus warmed up (two-thirds of the way through the show), the audience is readier to respond vocally during the latter two acts of The Hypochondriac, but belly-laughs remain thin on the ground. This is not to deny that Jones has supervised a fine, consistently amusing production, but the sensation of restraint, even deference, persists. Plainly, a decision was taken not to indulge in modish tinkering, but for a play rooted in traditions of commedia dell'Arte this is at times a disconcertingly poised affair. Another few steps along the zany road might not have gone entirely amiss.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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