I first came across Justin Fleming’s adaptations of Molière’s works in 2005 when I stumbled on a copy of Tartuffe that I ended up directing at Melbourne Theatre Company. Thus began my love affair with these fresh and energetic translations that so perfectly intertwined Molière’s wit with an Australian sensibility.
Nearly 15 years on and this will be the fifth production Bell Shakespeare has presented, the previous being TheSchool For Wives (2012), Literati (2016 – co-produced with Griffin Theatre Company) and The Misanthrope (2018 – co presented with Griffin Theatre Company) all directed by Lee Lewis, and Tartuffe (2014) which I was thrilled to direct.
In 2015 when John Bell made the decision to step away from the role of Artistic Director, I knew then that I wanted to bring him back in a role that would be fun and engaging for him and audiences alike. I considered all the great roles that Shakespeare has to offer, but I kept coming back to this play – The Miser – and the role of Harpagon. John is one of Australia’s acting greats, and many people recall his dramatic roles; King Lear, Richard III, Hamlet. But for me it’s John’s impeccable comedic timing and inherent wittiness that I love to see him bring to the stage. For this, and so many reasons, The Miser called to be programmed, with John as its star and Justin Fleming as its translator.
Molière was an actor, a manager and writer for an ensemble. He was brave and subversive. Like Shakespeare, he knew who he was writing for and had things to say. He saw corruption, hypocrisy and pretension all around him and skewered his targets with delight.
The modern sitcom owes an enormous debt to Molière. His plays often sit in a single location and take place almost in real time. They feature small social groups, like the families that are the backbone of situation comedy. His archetypes are immediately recognisable. They are almost always selfish, ambitious, careless, sometimes cruel and wonderfully human and, by the end of each play, completely loveable! Forgiveness and love drive these plays. The villains end up alone while the rest unite.
Many of Molière’s plays are poetic, built around rhyming couplets. To translate rhyming couplets from the French is notoriously difficult. French words are easy to rhyme. English words are not. The form can often be clunky and can slow the speed of the characters’ thoughts. For Molière, the form provided pace and energy. It made for good drama. The plays are rigorous yet plastic, serious yet playful. They are tightly controlled yet seemingly improvised. To tackle Molière one must be quick witted, brave and decisive.
The task of the translator is to be true to the language and the form of the original work but if something of the energy and spirit is lost in translation then the work fails. Justin is a man of the theatre. He loves actors and he loves audiences. Justin has an open heart and a sense of mischief perfectly suited to translating Molière. He is respectful but not reverent. He wants to have a relationship with Molière. To discover his own voice in the plays of the French master and find a way to share these remarkable works with Australians.
I have had the pleasure of sitting with thousands of people in audiences all over Australia, in small regional towns and capital cities and all have been invigorated, shocked and captivated by these works. Many have never seen a Molière play and here it is; foreign and entirely familiar, a new play yet quite clearly an old play, Australian yet undeniably French.
There is a game inherent in the rhyme schemes Justin employs that creates a connection between the actor and the audience that’s almost childlike in its delight. It taps into something we experience when we are first learning. As an audience, we simply cannot predict the end of the line. Sometimes we get there just before the character and feel close to them; we are in their head, we are with their thoughts. Sometimes the rhyme is not what we expect, and this surprise carries another kind of connection as we delight in being wrong-footed. This extremely self-conscious form of dialogue places us continuously in our own conversation with the characters and the play but, like a tennis match, we are never entirely sure how it will resolve.
With John Bell and Justin Fleming at the heart of this production, and an astoundingly talented ensemble of actors to play with them both, The Miser has a unique voice that allows us to connect with the work of Molière afresh but also to offer a distinctive Australian twist.
A combination that I think will delight many across the country.