Martin Duncan's production of Molière's in Jeremy Sams's new translation began life as an excuse for an opera. Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos was performed at last summer's Edinburgh Festival in the manner originally intended, as a divertissement mounted amid an abbreviated version of the Molière play. Since then, the opera production has been revived, and now the full version of the play can be seen at Nottingham and later at Birmingham Rep.
Sams's translation is straightforward and occasionally robust: one of Monsieur Jourdain's hired cultural hands insults another with "You, sir, are a big girl's blouse!" and, during the "fake exotic investiture" scene, Jourdain is persuaded that, in the foreign gibberish being spoken by his deceivers, the phrase for "Thank you very much" is "Ai yamat wat". (Try saying it aloud.)
As Jourdain, James Bolam maintains an innocent, dignified ludicrousness of the sort familiar from his finest television sitcoms; this is not the spluttering vulgarian of Timothy Spall's performance in the same role at the National a few years ago, but a man with a childlike trust that he will, eventually, be able to learn all the necessary social refinements in easy-to-digest chunklets, if only he pays his teachers enough. Beverley Klein (barely reaching to Bolam's oxter) is as magnificent as ever at tart ridicule as Madame Jourdain, and Stephen Rashbrook waffles nicely behind his false beard as the phoney interpreter.
Tim Hatley and Jackie Galloway have dressed the set and actors in 1920s opulence, with the sole exception of Jourdain himself, whose excesses of costuming stomp gleefully across all eras, styles, colours and even genders – Dame Edna Everage herself would balk at being seen in his "new frock". Duncan aims for a performance style akin to that of a pantomime by Noël Coward, into which plummet with comical thuds the occasional expletive or a line such as Jourdain's bewildered inquiry of the pastoral musical interlude, "Why is it always shepherds?"
These days, however, most of the audience would be likely to consider "bourgeois" to mean snobbish upper-middle-class rather than the hopelessly aspiring below-the-salt classes; the instructive element of Moliere's original is dissipated, and broader comedy – as here – must be found. Moreover, and at the risk of committing a Jourdainism myself, one can only watch the standard "daffy old protagonist is tricked into allowing his daughter to marry her true love" Comédie plot so often before the tune begins to sound over-familiar, whatever changes are rung upon it. Nevertheless, Duncan and Sams know what they want, and they achieve it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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