TRUST the French to craft a farce that twists itself into a tragedy. This is the case with Molière’s The Miser, which director Sylvaine Strike has plucked from the 17th century and is bravely staging in the here and now.
That said, in her production,, the former Standard Bank Young Artist resists the temptation to adapt it into a contemporary, Africanised milieu. True to Strike’s half-French origins and her Lecoq School training in Paris, she and her creative team strive to keep this satirical period piece authentic, with baroque-inspired styling and vintage design.
But the question is: can a work that was first performed in 1668 still hold any relevance, let alone interest, in 2012? The obvious answer is that in the current economic climate, it is not hard to empathise with a stingy man who wants to save his pennies. But, more broadly, one should consider the continued popularity of Shakespeare’s plays, written even earlier. More specifically, his frothy comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream weave in elements of mistaken identity and comic deception similar to The Miser, and could be considered the forerunners of modern sitcoms and bedroom farces. The intriguing difference with The Miser is that although there are also mix-ups and improbable plot twists that culminate in marriages and an ostensibly happy ending, the play has a rather chilling and cynical dénouement: the miserly patriarch is left alone with his precious gold, which gives him cold comfort in his isolation.
Lionel Newtown plays Harpagon, the tight-fisted old man of the title. He is a widower, and it is implied that he has channelled his grief and loneliness into amassing a fortune that will never abandon him. In his obsessive state, he is oblivious that his daughter, Élise (Kate Liquorish), is in love with his valet, Valère (Atandwa Kani), and his son, Cléante (William Harding), has the hots for Mariane (Motlatji Ditodi), the daughter of their neighbour. Small problem: Harpagon is also wooing Mariane.
Although the play drags on too long for what it is trying to say, this curious beast is also a fascinating one. It certainly takes time to grow accustomed to the hyperbolic style, which draws on the exaggerated and highly expressive movements of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte theatrical tradition (whose canon also, incidentally, features a miserly character called Pantalone). After a somewhat befuddling first act that veers close to being alienating, the play settles into itself — and so, too, does the audience. Such a deluge of absurd over-the-topness can be hard to stomach in one sitting, but once one sees beyond the daft shenanigans to the play’s darker edge, some meat is added to the mayhem.
Strike is moving away from her trademark whimsical slices of life into more dangerous and uncharted territory, as was the case with her recent play, The Table. Her latest endeavour is also an adventurous if risky ride, which will leave some patrons scratching their heads. Yet The Miser is by no means stingy on food for thought for those willing to step out of their comfort zones and explore something tantalisingly different.
•The Miser is on until December 9, Market Theatre, 56 Margaret Mcingana St, Johannesburg, (011) 832-1641, markettheatre.co.za.