The Literati by Justin Fleming after Moliere’s Les Femmes Savantes…a review by Deb Meyer

June 6, 2016 by Deb Meyer
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On opening night of The Literati, at Sydney’s SWB Stables Theatre, love was certainly in the air.

There was a palpable sense we were about to witness the birth of an exciting new play, co-produced by unlikely bed fellows Griffin Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare. With Justin Fleming’s Australian adaptation of Moliere’s Les Femmes Savante (The Literary Women) the collaboration is a natural and clever fit.

Caroline Brazier, Kate Mulvany, Miranda Tapsell and Jamie Oxenbould. Photo: Brett Boardman

Caroline Brazier, Kate Mulvany, Miranda Tapsell and Jamie Oxenbould. Photo: Brett Boardman

Fleming has indeed brought us a gem of a play. One that sparkles with great wit and wisdom and has brought Moliere’s play of 1672 to a very modern-day, Australian audience. As Fleming notes in the program, “The Literati is many things, not least a piss-take on pretentious literary conceit” and Fleming has certainly heightened the comedy in this edited 2 hour and 20 minute play. He does this through witty rhyming language and embracing the “wonderful wankery”, as Flemings calls it, of high-brow characters in the play who take themselves so terribly seriously, in particular the poet Triston Tosser (surname certainly intended).

With great humour, the play pits the pursuit of female intellectual rigour and spiritual attainment through wide reading of science, art, philosophy and poetry, against the more earthly, domestic and ‘’ignorant’’ kind, who remain in the more physical world. The first scene sets this up beautifully, with Amanda (Kate Mulvany) – the older sister who ‘’enjoys scholarly chatter’’ and ‘’devoted entirely to things of the mind’’, who criticises her younger sister Juliet (Miranda Tapsell), for wanting to marry and live a life of domesticity rather than intellectual pursuits. Amanda tells Juliet “your so-called mind is incapable of disinfection, As you insist with mule-headed madness that marriage is perfection”.

We discover, the man with whom Juliet is in love, Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould), was previously courting Amanda – a neurotic narcissist who believes Clinton’s passion for her is still alive. Amanda and her mother Philomena (Caroline Brazier) “hailed by the literati as a woman of higher learning”, both reject Juliet marrying Clinton, a far too uneducated man. Instead, they try to convince her to marry Triston Tosser (Gareth Davies), a precious, pompous poet deemed by the two as the most beloved and brilliant of men. They gush with lustful yearning as he orates his poetry at their regular literary sessions, with great laughs by the audience.

Gareth Davies and Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Gareth Davies and Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Supporting Juliet’s decision to follow her heart is her father Christopher (doubled by Jamie Oxenbould) – a thoroughly hen-pecked husband who is brave enough in Philomena’s absence, but bows to her wishes when she appears. Philomena finds contrary views too with her maid Martina (doubled by Miranda Tapsell) who, unlike Clinton, finds the words to throw back at Philomena, just not of the articulate kind. In a moment of hysteria, Philomena fires her maid for a heinous crime, that of murdering the English language –  “The impudent little wretch sees correctness as some odious duty, Instead of using it as something founded on reason and poetic beauty”.

The only person who can reconcile the two extremes is Dr Athenais Vadius (doubled by Caroline Brazier) – an old friend of Juliet’s father and a respected, literary woman of both head and heart.

Director Lee Lewis must be applauded for her clever craftsmanship in staging this production in the tiny Stables theatre. It is skilfully paced and despite the wonderful humour in the script and acting, allows space for reflection on some of the weightier themes. In reducing the original 7 actors that Fleming wrote, into 5 and therefore doubling up all the actors, Lewis’s self-confessed greatest challenge is indeed a great success. Through minimal changes in costume and quick turnaround times, the doubling elicits great laughs and the actors smile along with us. The use of a revolving central stage as a Parisian living room, with two smaller fixed areas, works brilliantly.

Sets and costume design by Sophie Fletcher are contemporary and eclectic, with the set replete with modernist sculpture and a range of paintings, including an Aboriginal piece. Costumes well reflect their distinctive characters. Lighting design by Verity Hampson is playful and effective and with talented co-composers and sound designers, Max Lambert and Roger Lock, they complete this wonderful crew.

Lewis has assembled an outstanding cast. Kate Mulvany is brilliant and funny as the highly strung, intellectual snob, Amanda, who embodies her characters physicality and rhyming vocals masterfully. Caroline Brazier is exceptional as the head strong matriarch Philomena and exudes a calm and centred Dr Vadius, evoking balanced reason. Gareth Davies is delightful to watch as the chilled out, almost drug induced poet Triston, with an overly inflated sense of importance and detached je ne sais qua that reduces Philomena and Amanda into near idol worship. Miranda Tapsell is charming as the sweet Juliet and perfect as the straight shooting, feisty maid.

Jamie Oxenbould is exceptional as Juliet’s father Christopher – the meek underdog who finds bravery, and in his pitch perfect playing of Juliet’s lover Clinton, with authenticity, dagginess and humour, revealing the façade of the literati and plucking at the heart of this production. His solo scene playing both the lover and father (with only a change in vocals and a cap), treading up and down the spinning stage, steals the show.

In this world premiere of The Literati, how wonderful for us that Griffin Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare, with Lee Lewis and Peter Evans as Artistic Directors respectively, have taken the leap of faith to bring about this Justin Fleming masterpiece. A la Moliere, combined with a distinctively Australian flavour, this clever, playful mockery of the literary elite is pure joy.

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The Literati by Justin Fleming, after Moliere’s Les Femmes Savantes

Produced by Griffin Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare at the SWB Stables Theatre

May 27 – July 16, 2016

Performance times:

Monday – Friday 7pm

Saturday 2pm & 7pm

Tuesday 1pm & 7pm

 

Tickets: www.griffintheatre.com.au or ph (02) 9361-3817

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