The Literati

SBW Stables Theatre, June 1

The Literati

Gareth Davies as Tristan Tosser and Miranda Tapsell as Juliet. Photo: Daniel Boud

In his latest Molière adaptation, Justin Fleming has one of the characters bemoan the proliferation of over-rated writers:

“They seem to pop up everywhere, as if we somehow breed them;                                          With so many people writing, it’s a wonder there’s anyone to read them.                            And there are people who cannot write, re-writing authors who could,                                    And giving us appalling version of works that used to be good.”

The swipe at the number of new adaptations of classic plays seen on Sydney stages in recent years (including his, of course) was met with a huge roar of laughter on opening night.

The criticism of “appalling versions” can’t be levelled at Fleming who has cornered a market adapting Molière’s satirical comedies for Australian audiences, writing them in rollicking verse laced with colourful, contemporary slang.

After staging his laugh-out-loud versions of The School for Wives in 2012 and Tartuffe in 2014, Bell Shakespeare has joined forces with Griffin Theatre Company to present the third in a winning trifecta.

The Literati is adapted from Molière’s 1672 play Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies): a piss-take on literary and intellectual pretention. Fleming has anglicised names, removed a couple of characters – an aunt and uncle whose functions in the drama are given to other characters – and turned the scholar Vadius into a woman, all of which works a treat.

In a nutshell, young lovers Juliet (Miranda Tapsell) and Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould) want to marry. Juliet’s sensible but hen-pecked father Christopher (Oxenbould again) approves of the match. But her mother Philomena (Caroline Brazier) and sister Amanda (Kate Mulvany), both dreadful cultural snobs who host a Tuesday book club, are determined she marry the aptly named Tristan Tosser (Gareth Davies) who they idolise.

In fact, Tosser is a third-rate poet described as “one sausage sanger short of a barbie” who would “bore the arse off a Mallee bull”. Though he’s a complete charlatan with an eye to their fortune, he’s a more foolish, passive villain than the devious Tartuffe and doesn’t feel as much of a real danger. As a result, the play is fairly predictable.

The Literati

Kate Mulvany as Amanda and Caroline Brazier as Philomena. Photo: Daniel Boud

Nonetheless, it’s a gloriously funny production, directed by Lee Lewis (who also directed The School for Wives), in which the virtuosity of Fleming’s verse writing is matched by brilliant comic performances all round.

Fleming mixes up his rhyme schemes so that as well as frisky rhyming couplets there are a couple of other verse patterns. The changes of gear keep things fresh and varied.

Designer Sophie Fletcher works wonders within the tiny space to evoke a chic, bourgeois Parisian home with designer furniture. An eclectic mix of art on the walls speaks of someone buying work deemed collectable rather than a reflection of personal taste and passion. At the centre of the stage is a raised revolve, which Lewis uses very cleverly to keep the action moving without overdoing it.

Dramatic Baroque-flavoured music, co-composed by Max Lambert and Roger Lock, punctuates the drama with humour while quick-smart doubling from the cast of five adds another level of fun, with all the actors except Davies playing two characters. Brazier is a commanding presence, moving with skilful ease between the domineering, pashmina-draped Philomena and the wise scholar Vadius in black jacket. While Vadius maintains her elegant poise, Philomena becomes increasingly dishevelled as the play unfolds.

Mulvany is hysterically funny as the uptight, fierce, wilfully deluded Amanda who once rejected Clinton but now won’t accept that he could have transferred his affections to Juliet. The way she edges sideways onto the raised revolve in her tight skirt and high heels is a hoot in itself. And where Brazier’s hair slowly becomes messier and more unkempt, Mulvany’s entire body is upended at one point by the comical goings-on. She also plays an officious attorney in tightly belted raincoat.

The Literati

Jamie Oxenbould as Christopher. Photo: Daniel Boud

With just a baseball cap to differentiate them, Oxenbould flips convincingly between Clinton and Christopher, bringing the house down in one hilarious scene in which he plays them both.

Tapsell glows as the guileless Juliet and the bolshie maid Martina, sacked by Philomena for her bogan-phraseology (“the woman’s a walking earache”) and crimes against language. In an interview, Tapsell told me that she uses her native Darwin accent for Martina (which she worked very hard to lose while at NIDA).

As Tosser – or Tossère as he would have it – Davies, in artfully draped scarf and jewellery, poses and speaks with a quiet, affected languor.

Running 160 minutes including interval, The Literati makes its point about intellectual pomposity versus true wisdom, while its discussion about marriage and women’s role in society still strikes a strong chord, but mostly it’s heaps of silly fun. Recommended.

The Literati runs at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross until July 16. Bookings: www.griffin.com.au or 02 9361 3817

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 5

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Neighbourhood Watch

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, December 18

Brian Meegan and Fiona Press. Photo: Natalie Boog

Brian Meegan and Fiona Press. Photo: Natalie Boog

Written in 2011, Neighbourhood Watch is Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th play – and we thought David Williamson was prolific. It may not be vintage Ayckbourn but it’s an entertaining, darkly funny satire.

Tuning into the perennial fear of the unknown or “other”, as well as concerns about the changing face of Britain and the breakdown of society, Ayckbourn proved to have his finger on the pulse: the London Riots happened shortly after the play’s Scarborough premiere.

Devout Christian siblings Martin (Brian Meegan) and Hilda (Fiona Press), both unmarried, move into a nice, middle-class suburb, bringing a garden gnome called Monty and a statue of Jesus with them. They’ve only just arrived when Martin spots a teenager clambering over the next-door fence. Taking the boy to be an intruder and warned by neighbours about the “drugs, violence and incest” in the nearby, run-down council estate, he decides to form a neighbourhood watch committee.

Joining Martin and Hilda, are local gossip Dorothy (Gillian Axtell), ex-security guard Rod (Bill Young), Gareth (Jamie Oxenbould), a whining engineer with a mania for medieval punishment devices, Gareth’s promiscuous wife Amy (Olivia Pigeot) and Magda (Lizzie Mitchell), a troubled music teacher who lives next door with her aggressive husband Luther (Douglas Hansell).

Before long, the do-gooders have become every bit as frightening as the “riff raff and vermin” they are supposedly protecting themselves from, instituting a gated community with ID cards, volunteer vigilantes and a set of stocks on the roundabout into town.

The characters never feel entirely real but under the direction of Anna Crawford the excellent cast give sterling performances, doing their utmost to bring them to vibrant life.

Press is disturbingly good as Hilda, proving every bit as pushy as she is pious, while Meegan’s Brian merges decency and tyranny with self-satisfied ease. Oxenbould meanwhile is very funny as the wimpy Gareth, whinging about his wife’s behaviour one minute and pontificating over the difference between stocks and pillories the next.

The second act in which Ayckbourn focuses on the characters’ personal issues isn’t as sharp as the first and peters out a bit, but Crawford’s well-paced production keeps us engaged.

Neighbourhood Watch is a morality tale that underlines the potential danger of religious fervour and any form of dictatorship no matter how seemingly benign. We know we are being fed a message by Ayckbourn but it’s done with plenty of humour and enough of a sting in the tail to make us ponder.

Neighbourhood Watch runs at the Ensemble Theatre until January 24. Bookings: ensemble.com.au or (02) 9929 8877

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on December 29