Exchange Theatre’s adaptation of French classic, Misanthrope, is ambitious and clever but at times feels thematically forced.
Whilst Molière may not play a significant part in the British canon, he’s a seminal figure within French literature. In fact, anyone who has studied French for a while will most likely have come across one of his plays. With classics such as The Miser (a comedy about an incomparably money-hungry widower) and Misanthrope (which centres on a man who regards the vapidness of his peers with utter contempt), it is safe to say that Molière explores the not so appealing characteristics of mankind. Although his pieces can seem farcical on a surface level, Molière deftly uses satire to probe into darker themes and Misanthrope is no exception.
For Exchange Theatre to stage their own translation of Misanthrope at Camden People’s Theatre is no small feat. It’s worth mentioning that the bilingual cast perform alternate performances of the play entirely in French. The result? The actors have a much closer relationship to the language, which produces the occasional moment where a monologue is delivered with enthralling clarity. We see these moments predominantly with Fanny Dulin who plays Eliante and Arsinoé. Another shining performance is that of Oronte (Leo Elso) who gives the character a delightfully bohemian quality. Not only is Elso a brilliant musician but he’s the driving force for many comedic moments and one cannot help but be charmed by his character. On the other hand, there are multiple occasions where lines are garbled or rushed by other actors – and we lose a potentially powerful moment.
The choice to situate the play within our very immediate epoch of ‘fake news’ is one that could have backfired. We are, after all, inundated with never-ending news reports, so it is easy as an audience to seek respite from this and consequently disconnect from the adaptation. Exchange Theatre thoughtfully utilises the space in Camden People’s Theatre to create a convincing news studio for Misanthrope. There are screens hovering about the stage that constantly blast snippets of virtual conversations that have taken place between characters and news stories that affect them. Occasionally ,we follow Clitandre (James Buttling) and Acaste (Samuel Arnold) as they livestream their jaunts throughout Camden People’s Theatre. The use of multimedia throughout the play helps to evoke a strong media presence that burdens Alceste. There are moments, however, where the use of media feels wedged into the narrative, with characters taking selfies at unnatural moments for example. In these moments, the connection with social media distracts from the narrative and the performances.
Whilst Exchange Theatre conveys the disconnect in human interaction that ensues in a ‘plugged in’ age, it could do more to showcase the sheer alienation that Alceste has been driven to. Director David Furlong stars as Alceste, the eponymous Misanthrope and whilst there is a certain charisma to his performance, it lacks Alceste’s exasperation. In an early scene, his friend Philinte (played by Simeon Oakes) expresses concern at Alceste’s extreme behaviour. Alceste is after all completely and utterly tired of humankind. Alceste declares “Mankind is grown so base,” that he has “no desire but to part from the race” yet, we hardly see this sheer disdain. We merely capture glimpses of it.
Ultimately, Misanthrope creates a realistic news studio within Camden People’s Theatre. Some moments where the text is woven into a modern day setting are inspired but the emphasis on the media does feel over-demonstrated at times.