Molière weaves a comedy as effective as any of his contemporaries of the time. Just across the Channel, writers like John Dryden, Ben Jonson and William Wycherley were doing very similar things to Molière. It’s Molière, however, who was the great influence of his time, inspiring reworks such as Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, performed by the Perth French Theatre (PFT) on May 25th.
In Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Molière tells the tale of the absurd Monsieur Jourdain, a ‘bourgeois’ (the merchant middle class of France), obsessed with finding a way into the aristocracy. Unfortunately, the only thing he has going for him is his sizable wallet. He believes that by hiring ‘masters’ to teach him the aristocratic arts of music, philosophy and fencing, and by lending money to aristocrats, he can buy and impersonate his way into the upper class. A host of other characters enliven the play, such as the wary and wise Madame Jourdain; their daughter, Lucille; and her good-hearted yet conniving fiancé-hopeful, Clèonte.
Molière wrote Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in the 17th century, to be presented at the court of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’. It was a commentary on the France of the time, filled with graceless, bourgeois social climbers and vain aristocrats. Molière also incorporated the contemporary obsession with Ottoman culture, which resonated with the Sun King.
It is little wonder that any attempt to stage something with the ambition and history of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme would be difficult. The cast does an admirable job of carrying the show in French, which adds an element of immersion and homage. This, however, is offset by the contemporary setting. A lot of production choices clash and become confusing, pulling you out of the otherwise enjoyable performances. The contemporary tone makes the production feel fickle and whimsical. There are some scenes which feel totally different to the original text, which I felt was a drawback.
This is a struggle faced by many attempts at contemporary retellings, and one that, in spite of some great performances, PFT’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme could not overcome. It is my opinion that a more pared-down telling of the story, focusing on bringing Molière’s work to a new audience, rather than attempting to add and change so much, would have been a much more enjoyable staging and overall production
Le bourgeois gentilhomme will be performed by the PFT until June 2. More information about the show can be found here.
Rating: ★★ ½
Words by Lachlan Serventy