Writing for us
A CurtainUp London Review
Now Bean throws new life into this seventeenth century French play, Le Malade Imaginaire. In his hands, it becomes The Hypochondriac and the humeurs are replaced with accessible humour, albeit of the scatological variety. With Lindsay Posner directing and Henry Goodman excelling in the title role, The Hypochondriac is a theatrical treat as pleasurable as a full body massage.
As I had discovered on a visit to France some years before my first encounter with Moliere's literature, the French had bathroom cabinets stuffed with a multiplicity of remedies, the contents of a small pharmacy. The favoured administration of a drug took the form of a rectal suppository, which I, in my innocence, asked to take with a glass of water, much to the hilarity of my French hosts. I had a sore throat and had lost my voice practising my French.
Moliere wasn't just a playwright, he was also an actor and the terrible repercussions of faking illnesses struck home when on the fourth performance of Le Malade Imaginaire he was taken ill on stage and died. His fellow actors had ignored his complaints and so, in an irony of ironies, a doctor had not been called.
The play opens with Argan (Henry Goodman in Molière's own part) wearing clothes that look like a baby's outfit -- lacy bonnet, night shirt, sitting on a chair cum commode with a tray from which he can work. He is inspecting the account from his doctor, a list of purging and emollients and enemas as extensive as one can only imagine would be the predilection of the rectally fixated. As a medical consultant friend of mine says, "There are always physicians who will relieve you of a congestion of money." and Argan's bills are suitably weighty. He calls for his maid, Toinette -- I'll swear the cast were pronouncing her name with an L rather than an N. Toinette (Lyndsey Marshal) is of course brighter than her employers and very cheeky. It is she who is called upon to clear up after Monsieur's purging has elicited an evacuation.
Argan is plotting to marry his beautiful daughter Angélique (Carey Mulligan) into the family of his doctor for the free medical benefits. His young and beautiful second wife, Beline (Ronni Ancona) is plotting to dispossess her step daughters and inherit all his money. This is almost impossible under French law so she employs the assistance of a conniving lawyer (are there any other?) Bonnefoi (Gyuri Sarossy). The proposed suitor for Angélique is Thomas Diafoirerhoea (John Marquez), a strange young man who makes up in candid gaucheness what he lacks in natural intelligence. However Angélique has already fallen for a dashing youth, Cléante (Kris Marshall).
Molière's play was designed to expose the fawning and feigning characters and quacks, even the stupidly romantic he saw around him in French society. Only Argan's brother, the brewer Béralde (Stephen Boxer) is allowed to be the voice of reason and he devises a plan to unmask the unscrupulous and to clear the innocent.
The first act is superb, with the jokes coming as fast as a stream of diarrhoea and at times making you groan and laugh at the same time. The second half is only slightly less satisfactory. It features a strange dance of Dog Latin singing physicians which I think might have been funnier on paper than on stage, especially following such brilliantly comic portrayals.
Of course Bean's predicament is how much of the original Molière he has to include in what is his adaptation and the dance of the physicians is a remnant of the original. When at the opening of the second act, Toinette has to decant the contents of the chamber pot into specimen jars there is a vast wave of fascinated revulsion from the audience.
Henry Goodman is ideal, strangely affectionate in his portrait of the man in the grip of his gripe and being cuckolded by his greedy wife. His black eyes are beadily expressive and I can't imagine any actor giving a finer performance in the part. I also very much liked John Marquez's inept and ungainly suitor with elbow to wrist layered lace cuffs and long, lank, greasy dark hair. His idea of courting is to ask Angélique, "Would you like to come to the hospital and watch me dissect a woman?". His etiquette-dictated speeches of courtship to Angélique's parents are very funny and full of inappropriate flowery physiology as he voices regret to her step mother, "that I was never an egg in your fallopian tubes". Simon Gregor too is outlandish as Doctor Purgon, Argan's regular doctor whose interests are best served by keeping Argan as a semi-invalid. Ronni Ancona as Beline strikes exactly the right selfish hussy note and is justly exposed by her brother in law.
Giles Cadle's set features tall green panelling with pharmaceutical specimen jars lined on a shelf running the length of the room above the doors. We get only glimpses of the rooms beyond this room in which the hypochondriac confines himself. Lindsay Posner's production is so full of energy and clever comic asides, that we can forgive lines like, "With friends like this, we don't need any enemas!" I can't think of a nicer Christmas present for those who appreciate this kind of humour than tickets to this play, except perhaps the gift of "a penetrating, emollient exemplum to soften, moisten and enliven Monsieur's rectum."
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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