Monday, September 21, 2009

Theatre: The Hypochondriac

Arts Theatre, Cambridge, 18/9/2009

There is a certain category of old-fashioned stage comedy that is basically King Lear repeated as farce - the foolish old patriarch has to Learn Better before his (generally) loving daughter can claim the romantic independence she has so richly earned, while the villains who've exploited his folly have to be exposed (comically) and thus defeated. Molière's Le Malade Imaginaire is one of these; it's also a satire on the medical profession, from an era when seeing a doctor was probably a risky enough act, even if you were genuinely ill, that such attacks could be fully justified.

This production uses a new translation, by the always likeable Roger McGough, commissioned in the wake of a previous successful Molière translation from his hand. It makes the play into a franglais farce, albeit largely in fractured comic poetry well up to his general standards; still, given the amount of toilet humour (which apparently initially put McGough off attempting this particular play, so I doubt that he's added much) and the need of which he's spoken to work around (or sometimes, in practice, update) all the song-and-dance interludes that were standard in the period, I don't think that he could seriously be accused of lowering the tone much. Anyway, the thing raised a lot of honest laughter from the audience, which ain't bad for a 336-year-old comedy in anything like its original state. My knowledge of Molière is kind of patchy, but I guess his rep may well be well earned.

The production, incidentally, makes good use of a classic and classical single-location set and a highly competent cast. The acting and direction focus on the farcical aspect - I imagine that a different approach could make Argan, the old hypochondriac, into a more pathetic figure - but I don't think that anyone in this audience was complaining.

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