Audience members walking into the Pembroke New Cellars were greeted with a glass of red wine at the start of the French Society’s production of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, a 17th century comedy of manners satirising the French aristocracy, performed with a modern twist.

Interaction with the audience, such as this handing of vin rouge to the spectators, was present throughout the show: the actors used the entire space of the New Cellars, walking around the spectators, sitting down amongst them, interacting with them. Cast members such as Lindsay Robinot-Jones in the lead role of Alceste, as well as Jo Heywood (Célimène), and Arthur Bessis (Oronte) gave great performances. Robinot-Jones’s madly-in-love Alceste had a great energy, while Heywood was believable in her portrayal of the articulate and manipulative court woman Célimène. Molière's critique of the hypocrisies of 17th century French society has character-development as its focus – keeping the plot on the other hand fairly simple – so the diverse character traits portrayed are thus all the more important.

The production team, spearheaded by Director Lidija Beric, must be praised for their hard work on assembling the hybrid script. Keeping some of the original but combining it with a translated version, part of the play was en français, part of it in English. The challenges of such a script sottent aux yeux, are evident; not only did the cast have to learn a long and complicated French script written in Alexandrines, the actors had to constantly switch from one language to the other. Being the first language society production to completely omit subtitles, the collage of French and English lines had to be such that all audience members could follow the plot, which the Misanthrope team undoubtedly succeeded in doing.

“Not only did the cast have to learn a long and complicated French script, the actors had to constantly switch from one language to the other.”

The fairly bare set consisted of nothing but a red carpet, and two spotlights kept the audience’s attention on the work of the actors. The Brechtian interaction of the actors, the switching from one language to the other, the lights placed in such a way that not only the stage, but the audience too was lit for the entirety of the show, were all destabilising elements which resisted a traditional understanding of the Molière classic. Smartphones were used as props, creating the astonishing image of an iPhone sticking out of an arguably courtly ball gown. Similarly, the layout of the space, which allowed for the actors to constantly be on stage, could be said to recall Spanish Baroque productions characterized by the use of two platforms at opposite ends, linked by a corridor. Spanish Baroque was notoriously despised by the 17th century French writers and theatre critics, so the use of this layout might be read as another intentional subversion in this French Society production.

Whilst described as “a radically avant-garde and minimalist modernization” of Le Misanthrope in publicity material – and on doit l’admettre, as we have seen, an eclectic compound of destabilising elements are present in this production – one might wonder whether Beric could have taken these elements a step further to crystallise their vision. Smartphones are present, but one could not go as far as to say that this production is a “satire of the 21st century media, journalism and Hollywood culture,” as stated in publicity material. The use of smartphones did not seem to have any other purpose than the sake of introducing modern technology into this world, Brechtian elements were present but the message they were trying to convey was not clear.


Mountain View

Pills is an exciting experimental piece with professional quality

The French Society chose to rework Molière’s classic with modern twists – showing an initiative and bravery which is refreshing on the Cambridge theatre scene. But, despite interesting ideas and good performances, the extent to which this production manages to convey a cohesive vision is debatable.

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