In recent years there has been a proliferation of cinema screenings of live theatre events.  Probably the Metropolitan Opera was the first big player, but since then they have been joined by others.  In their countries of origin, these have been done as “live” screenings.  Here in Australia we have to be content with delayed screenings.

Whilst these screenings have their limitations, I have generally enjoyed the ones I have gone to.  They give a better account of a live art form than screen adaptations of plays or “filmed” (mostly mimed) operas.  I would go to many more of these than I do if they were not nearly always scheduled for (generally weekend) daytime screenings.  Even though my present office is well lit, the proverbial dingy little office of the working week hangs over me.  Especially if the weather is fine and sunny, it seems wrong to turn my back on it.  Call me Clancy – even if what usually happens on a weekend is that we sleep in, faff around (mostly inside) the house on weekend domestic chores, and only manage to sally forth, if at all, in the late afternoon.

So it took some effort to leave a glorious day behind me last Sunday in favour of a noon screening of Moliere’s Le Misanthrope, from the ComédieFrançaise.

The misanthrope of the title, Alceste, is a man who is disenchanted with the world and with people and brings difficulty upon himself by his desire only to be sincere – which includes always to tell the truth to others.  This has already brought him into strife; more follows after he takes up the invitation to give his true opinion of Orontes’ verses.  Alceste has fallen, unwisely one might think, for a young widow, Célimène, who has a converse tendency to insincerity, including when in company to offer her adverse opinions of “absent friends.”

There’s got to be a lot you miss when you see a play in a foreign language.  You are pretty much a swine in the face of any verbal pearls.  It was only at the scene – in this production played out over a meal, where Célimène gives a series of cutting character-sketches (known, I suppose to every French school child, as ‘the portrait scene”) that I suddenly realised they had been speaking in rhyming verse all alongThat’s a turn-up for the books from the usual situation.

By the time I got out, at about 3.30, the glorious weather had clouded over.  Still, I was very glad I went.  At a “culture vulture” level, it was good to have seen such a famous play.  There is usually good reason why such plays have earned their fame and this was no exception.  There was much food for thought.  It was also a very handsome and striking production.

This year I have been reading a bit of literature in translation.  It is rather shocking how many even quite famous foreign-language works are almost totally inaccessible and certainly out of circulation in English.

Some of the themes and approaches of the play are familiar – it would be odd if they were unique.  In the alternative title to the play (“The Splenetic Lovers”) and the sallies between Alceste and Célimène, there are reminiscences of Beatrice and Benedict.  Reviews of this production have battened on its delivering a “Chekhovian” version of the play.

In the course of the play, some business is made of a piano on stage.  Alceste tinkers at it from time to time, bending over the keyboard and playing in a most peculiar way.  The picture above does not really fully capture it but gives an idea.  Interviews with director construct a psychology for Alceste as alienated and depressed.  It turns out the piano-playing style is a nod towards Glenn Gould as a modern type of misanthrope.

I doubt if we’d get a reference like that on the stage in Sydney.




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