Review: The Misanthrope (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday May 4)

Hoorah! They’re back – and about time. Bodinetz, McGough, ETT in perfect rhyme.

After the sheer delights of their productions of Moliere’s Tartuffe and The Hypochondriac, adapter Roger McGough and director Gemma Bodinetz are preparing to put the quills, wigs, and bodices in storage (booooo!) – but thankfully not before delivering the masterpiece that is The Misanthrope.

It goes without saying that the English Touring Theatre are as perfect as ever, but it would be difficult to fail with such a beautifully crafted production of this 17th Century acidic comedy of manners, staged jointly with the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.

Although not a success when first presented in Paris in 1666, the play is probably Moliere’s best-known work today and in recent years has seen a number of modern updates. But this impeccable production keeps the play firmly in its original setting, with McGough retaining the basis of the original with some lip-smacking rhyming couplets (you won’t find a much better line this year than, “Her beauty is sadly now passé/ And not perhaps your tasse de thé”).

Colin Tierney’s humanity-hating protagonist Alceste (whose stand against the social conventions of the day is underlined by having him speak plain prose and becoming exasperated when he slips into verse) is a joy and the audience has much sympathy for him as he struggles against a tidal wave of tradition and superficiality. The final scene where Alceste and his blundering servant Dubois (a great comic performance by Neil Caple) depart through a theatre-style exit door is haunting and ingenious.

There is some fabulous foppish frippery from Daniel Goode as Oronte, Leander Deeney as Clitandre, and George Potts as Acaste, hopeless gossiping romantics in a chattering class with no substance, while Zara Tempest-Walters is a dangerous and increasingly unpleasant Celimene, whose wit and charm turn into backbiting nastiness that deserves to be rejected.

Simon Coates as the loyal friend Philinte and Alison Pargeter as Eliante are well-matched, somehow providing the only hope for a genuine depth of relationship and true common sense, while Harvey Virdi as Arsinoe displays the pain of unrequited love and the bitterness of age.

The production is placed in a gorgeous set by Michael Taylor, which looks for all the world like a gilded cage in which all the ridiculous characters (including Celimene in a feathery dress) can preen and prance as much as they like, pecking at each other behind bars, protected from the real world.

This final production in the creative team’s trilogy retains a truly classic feel, but also manages to be entirely contemporary – baroque and roll for the 21st Century.

David Guest