A moveable feast: Bell Shakespeare’s The School for Wives

Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably, they are both disappointed.
Albert Einstein

It’s November, eight weeks until the new year, and the city is in its holiday humour. I don’t think there is a better way to bring on summer than with a life-affirming comedy – such as one of Bell Shakespeare’s offerings – of which their production of Moliere’s The School For Wives is a perfect example.
Following on from her beautiful and ingenious production of Twelfth Night for Bell Shakespeare in 2010 (also the national tour production), Lee Lewis directs a new Australian translation of Moliere’s “comedic train-wreck of a love story that tangles innocence with arrogance – and the other way around.” Set in Paris in the 1920s, Lewis’ production borrows and riffs upon the aesthetic of silent films and is filled with a rollicking knock-about sense of life, self and body. It plays to and acknowledges its stylistic progenitor in a deliciously playful and whimsical way, every pratfall and moment savoured and delighted in by cast and audience alike.
The School For Wives tells the story of Arnolde (or ‘Monsieur de la Souche’ as he prefers to be called), a man who desperately wants to get married but is afraid that a smart woman will cheat on him. He devises an ingenious solution, and enlists the help of a local convent to raise a girl so stupidly innocent that she won’t know the first thing about cheating – let alone the last. In his mind she will be the ever-faithful perfect wife. But is she? In true Moliere style, much like a Shakespearean comedy, “the course of true love never did run smooth” and by the play’s end, the characters’ passions and desires have become so entangled only something akin to a miracle – or at least a heaven-sent miscommunication – could save them and right wrongs.

Every situation was played earnestly and with as much relish as the cast could muster. Justin Fleming’s rhyming script – something that sounded potentially twee and contrived on the page – did not distract from the play’s action; its the language was as modern and as immediate as anything you’d hear today, and when the rhymes became apparent,  it wasn’t hard to hear the appreciation in the audience, waves of sniggering and laughter rolling through the dark. John Adam as Arnolde barely left the stage throughout the play’s two-hour duration, a finely-tuned performance of repressed frustration and cunning, a wily and duplicitous fox who’s not afraid to impersonate a hen to get what he wants. As his foil, Horace, Meyne Wyatt is as charming and smooth and as agile as a young lover could be, his gentle mugging to the audience endearing and sweet and, when coupled with his entrances and exits on a bicycle and his loose-limbed energy, he is more of an ideal match to Agnes (Harriet Dyer) than Arnolde would care to acknowledge. As Agnes, Dyer is gawky and excitable, very much the naïve girl, her laugh and nervous energy a stark contrast to Arnolde’s cold surety. As his servants Alan and Georgette, Andrew Johnston and Alexandra Aldritch are the perfect double-act of subversion and stupidty, their capering and ‘business’ as every bit inspired as anything Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton could dream up. Their bed-scene at the beginning, played upright against a white scenic-flat with only a pillow, was the simplest and most ingenious example of Lewis’ stagecraft.
To be fair, every moment of the production was assured and carefully created, from Kelly Ryals’ music – played live in the manner of a silent film with flair and humour by Mark Jones (who bears more than a passing resemblance to British comedian Bill Bailey, a fact that doesn’t diminish his role at all) – all piano, kazoos, cymbals, penny-whistles and cowbells, to the simple use of projections and intertitles – the ‘opening titles’ and the driving scene at the beginning throw you headfirst into the production’s aesthetic, while the second act (after interval) opens with Alan holding a clapperboard (“School For Wives, Act Four, Scene One, Take Ninety-Four”) before calling “Action!” with a megaphone – and the ingenious representations of the balcony, walls, gardens, alleyways and other various locations that the story requires. There’s a mercurial fluidity to Lewis’ production which adds to the delight of the artifice, of the silent-film aesthetic, something which adds to the dynamic and energy of the performers.
By the end, when the quandary of Arnolde’s marriage plans are turned inside out and the love-match that Horace’s father has intended for his son is revealed to be the union between Horace and Agnes that they wanted all along, you cannot help but laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, at the brilliantly life-affirming and mad zaniness of it all. While Moliere has been compared to Shakespeare (the ‘French Shakespeare’ as people call him), he doesn’t have Shakespeare’s zing, the magical thrumbling hum of words and life that buzzes and fizzes throughout Shakespeare’s works, comedies-histories-tragedies-romances alike. Fleming’s ‘(slightly) audacious translation’ (as Lewis describes it in her director’s notes) restores the balance somewhat, and it really is a magnificent and handsomely imaginative production.
In Elizabethan and Jacobean times, every play ended with a jig, no matter whether it was a comedy, a history or a tragedy – As You Like It, Henry V and Hamlet, all of them ended with a jig, a representation that order had been restored to the world, that it was just a play, two-hours’ traffic upon a stage. Lewis used this device in her staging of Twelfth Night two years ago, with an all-out dance to Katrina & the Waves’ ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ and this time around includes it as well, a free-for-all dance to the jazz-age swing of the Twenties. It was grand, magical, and as the lights faded, the hum and laughter carried you out of the building and into the night, wafting down along the quay in the still-warm night air.
This is Summer. Or something very like it.

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