The Day I Turned Left

It was towards the end of 2008. The economy was crashing and Bell Shakespeare’s farting Macbeth had received good reviews. In the Myer windows Father Christmas and his elves were at work. Outside their North Pole factory a signpost pointed in two directions. To the right was Present Wrapping, to the left Christmas Cultural Studies. At the Arts Centre Playhouse the Melbourne Theatre Company was presenting The Hypocrite, a “new version” of Molière’s Tartuffe by Justin Fleming.

This new text was rhymed and had been written during a Swiss foundation’s writer’s residency on the island of Elba. It was Melbourne’s second Tartuffe adaptation in 2008 (see May Quadrant). Fleming tore out the original wit and satire and replaced Molière’s antique-speak with a dead language—Barry McKenzie Earls Court Australian, circa 1965—and more Melbourne food fetishism. The characters left la belle France and entered the antipodes brawling like the cast of a costly, bawdy Christmas panto—tickets cost up to $75.

Madame Pernelle (Kerry Walker, talking of her family): “fair suck of the sav”.

Orgon (Garry McDonald, in a scene with the maid): “shut the fuck up”, “shut your gob”, and “shut your crack”.

Elmire (Marina Prior, talking of Tartuffe’s sexual advances): “A man may throw you a sausage, but you don’t have to cook his steak”; “I only expected to stroke the barrel, but it seems I pulled the trigger”.

Orgon (explaining to his mother that he had found Tartuffe with his wife): “his hand on a map of Tassie”.

To write a vulgar and trivial play is not a crime, one does what one can. It is a crime to degrade a great play, but this has become the subsidised establishment’s preferred way of playing classic theatre. This year Bell Shakespeare’s production of Pericles will have a circus setting and feature a “drumming sensation”. The same company is copping out in its production of The Taming of the Shrew by dulling the play’s unfashionable and unhearable criticisms of women by using an all-female cast: “Witty, energetic and packed with female punch, The Taming of the Shrew is the perfect night out for anyone who has ever fallen in love and managed to survive it.”

The Playhouse stage was reduced in size for The Hypocrite and filled, by designer Stephen Curtis, with an elegant, three-sided, off-white box. There were doors on either side and between them a tall antique-looking cabinet, a low glass-topped table, some chairs both plastic and plastic-not. Above the stage was a large one-way mirror behind which was a French-singing guitarist and a large tape recorder. Hanging from the flies was a collection of chandeliers. Like the furnishings (and the script) the costumes were a corrupt mixture of period and modern.

Garry McDonald’s Orgon inhabited a periodish-looking jacket in emerald green with light-coloured jodhpurs and light-coloured, tall, lace-up high-heeled boots. His head was crowned with a toupee teased and engineered into a bizarre Indian hair masterpiece. McDonald had seemingly metamorphosed into a giant, long-limbed green mantis with bouffant hair. His often jerky movements spilled across the stage an assorted collection of gestures and postures that ranged from effeminate to crowd-pleasing silly. Occasionally he seemed to tumble, as others did, over the verse. McDonald could have been, should have been, a noteworthy Orgon in Molière’s play. In Fleming’s play, with vulgar words and hindered by the confused direction of Peter Evans, his performance accelerated quickly into nothing more than something rather ordinary.

Kim Gyngell wore his villain Tartuffe darkly. Dressed in a black suit and black skivvy with a goatee and glasses above, black winklepicker shoes below, he was smoothly retro and untrustworthy. Either like a 1960s French intellectual, boring for existentialism in the caves of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, or a white Obama. Reshaped, renovated and padded with inferior words, his role in The Hypocrite was also ordinary. If anyone ever finds a decent translation of Tartuffe at the library he could be interesting in the part.

Madame Pernelle (Kerry Walker) is the mother of Orgon and mother-in-law of Elmire (Marina Prior). She offered a funny, rapidly paced introduction to the play and the characters. Like Orgon she was religious and a credulous believer in the honesty of Tartuffe. In the Fleming version she became a loud visual joke with a ballooning and bicycle-pump-inflated dress and a metre-high hat. The words he fed her suggested a non-drag panto dame and she harrumphed about her family being a “miserable bunch of losers” and retorted to a remark that it was “the sort of crap only a cretin could follow”. In Molière Madame Pernelle is a vulgar bourgeoise, not a foul-mouth. The family unit about her, constructed by the modern playwright and director, was false and their dramatic problems rang untrue. The new satire was very weak tea because no one really knew or cared very much about the religious hypocrisy they were supposedly criticising. However, Fleming did introduce something novel and original and certainly not found in Molière. Along the way there was mention of “right to life”, which was weirdly linked to killing children. Strange stuff.

The maid Dorine (Mandy McElhinney) carries much of the play and Molière creates humour from the pertness of her responses and her subaltern condition. Molière deploys wit; Fleming battered his audience with crudity. Dorine’s description of neighbours who “shit on everyone from a lofty height” gives an idea of Fleming’s script. Words, costuming and direction hindered whatever she could have brought to the part. Marina Prior was elegant as Elmire.

The young actors played young actors playing television soaps. Serious voiced Nicholas Bell (Cléante) had wandered into the wrong theatre on the wrong afternoon.

The independent-minded booking computer pitched me into the very back row from where I got both onstage and offstage entertainment. When the actors got a bit dull there was the enjoyment of the chatterers, the head turners who responded to these noisy neighbours with flashing silencing eyes and tight lips, and the music of rustling sweets papers. The highlight of Act II was when Laurent (Martin Sharpe) appeared and a voice from the audience, heavy with the sad confusion of Alzheimer’s, asked loudly and with crystal clarity—“Who is that young man?”

The Hypocrite was just another fast-food production of a great work. A writer’s residency on Elba is not necessary for writing a bawdy panto, and neither do you need to mince a great comedy into hamburger meat to do so. Poor Molière.

Poor Shakespeare. There really was a fun-filled farting Macbeth which played to packed houses of screaming children. Just Macbeth! by Andy Griffiths was commissioned and presented by Bell Shakespeare to introduce children to Shakespeare. It deserves a footnote in a pedagogy of barbarism. Griffiths writes popular and best-selling scatological children’s books— coprophilia for the tots. He is defensive of criticism (which, typically, has increased his book sales) and on his website reprints essays by G.K. Chesterton as though Chesterton would have approved of his writings. Also online he has an essay by a children’s librarian. Her defence of his writing begins with a mention that she is a Christian and ends with a double-barrelled popgun firing off a quasi-prayer and a Biblical quote at her readers: “Let us let children get hot and dusty as they grapple with questions of moral right and wrong and let us not fear what is ‘bad’ remembering, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5).” And then avert your eyes from the violence, drugs and drunkenness of Schoolies Week on the evening news.

“A man in lust, will always trust, the one he wants to roger,” said Marina Prior. The audience laughed, which is normal. The audience applauded, which was absurd. Justin Fleming’s The Hypocrite brought the MTC’s theatrical season to an end. This year they move into a new $55 million theatre. It will be interesting to see if their elderly subscribers, surely suffering from the present financial uncertainty, will still be able to afford these time-passing entertainments and follow them to their new address.

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