The concept behind Exchange Theatre’s adaptation of The Misanthrope is strong and fully realised, but sadly the execution is far too long and disengaging.
Browsing through the programme (pre-show), the level of commitment and intellect that has clearly gone into the making of this Misanthrope is impressive – and the concept intriguing. Exchange Theatre, an international company of actors, writers and directors, have devised the show in both French and English (performed in each language on alternate nights) and relocated its setting from a 17th century court to the broadcasting room of a successful contemporary news corporation. They’ve re-purposed the self-righteous Alceste, the ‘misanthrope’, as a brutally honest and belligerent news reporter; stuck in a world of deceit and treachery. A clear comment on the ‘fake news’ phenomena – a term and ideology we have Donald Trump and his mafiosi to thank for, and one used to refer to news which (however supported it is by evidence and research) people choose not to ‘believe’ in, either because they just fundamentally don’t like it or it doesn’t assist them in their morally questionable enterprises.
All this tantalised a brain so stiff with anxiety about world politics, and so I was excited to see what the team were going to do to pull it off. The preset filled me with immense anticipation: a darkly-lit news room covered in illuminated screens displaying an ominous “M”. Clitanore and Acaste are handcuffed to each other behind a wide frame (used to divide the stage into two rooms); one lying down, the other stood up – phone in hand – trying to stave off sleep.
It’s too bad that when the lights came up, the show that followed did not live up to the promise of its programme or the enchantment of its visuals. I think this is unfortunately largely down to the cast who – despite their energy and exuberance – were just not convincing in their roles.
The best actor was David Furlong, who played protagonist Alceste. He managed to make his character at once annoying and loveable. Highlights included his speech to Oronte about the beauty of simplicity when it comes to writing sonnets, partially due to the wonderful dramatic irony as you knew with each biting word, Oronte was becoming more and more offended. Alceste’s descent into a jealous and drunken rage, upon the discovery of his lover’s (Célimene) infidelity, was handled with much sensitivity by Furlong and he never strayed into melodrama – something the rest of the cast were prone to doing. James Buttling as Clitanore was a particular offender there, sacrificing the clarity of the script for the sake of ‘crazy acting’. At times, it was effective (as he is genuinely a terrifying actor) but the quality of an antagonist is judged by how dastardly and compelling his cause is. Seeing as I could only just decipher (through all the shouting and excessive movement) the vague point of what he was trying to say, his performance was rendered empty and ostentatious.
Furlong, who also directed the piece, has done a great job at showing how the themes of The Misanthrope still ring true in the modern day. It is just a shame that there was barely any real emotion behind what any of the characters were saying. In trying to plug the comparison between Moliere’s work and the world of fast-moving and libellous news casting, they just forgot to make it entertaining. I do genuinely hope Exchange Theatre take the piece back to the devising room, and this time focus on feelings and emotions. Because they’ve got the concept: the execution just needs a lot of work.