THE MISER. Directed by Sylvaine Strike, with Lionel Newton, Patricia Boyer, Mpho Osei-Tutu, and Kate Liquorish. At the Baxter Theatre, Mondays to Saturdays until May 25 at 8pm. GREG SMITH reviews.
IN A bid to skyrocket their GDP, China has built the equivalent of Rome every two months for the past decade. The result is a series of ghost cities, totalling 64 million vacant homes. In India, R700m castles are being built on slums, and in South Africa, Kenny Kunene gets to eat sushi off naked girls while there are 1 500 people for each working toilet in Khayelitsha.
These are some examples of why Sylvaine Strike’s revival of a 400-year-old play is shockingly relevant to today’s society. Written by playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Molière) in 1668, The Miser looks at greed, our fear of sharing, and society’s obsession with hoarding.
The show’s title refers to the aged widower Harpagon (Lionel Newton), a paranoid and stingy soapbox orator who eavesdrops on his children and makes his guests empty their pockets before leaving the house. He tweaks his head suspiciously and wrings his hands.
Harpagon has two children, a son Cléante (William Harding), and a daughter Élise (Kate Liquorish). They are both desperate to get married, something their dad will only consent to if the related costs aren’t required to come from his pocket.
Performed in the style of Commedia dell’Arte (comedy of the craft of improvisation), there is loads of movement on stage. Every time a character speaks, an actor is required to bend, bow, curtsy, crouch, or perform air yoga. On top of remembering copious amounts of dialogue, this takes a lot of skill and muscle output. And while some of the positions look downright painful, you’ll never see this reflected on any faces during the show’s two hour running time.
At the beginning, Harpagon (nearing 70) is courting an attractive younger woman, Mariane (Motlaji Ditodi). But unbeknown to him, his son is doing the very same. Meanwhile, Harpagon’s daughter is in love with one of their stewards, Valère (Atwanda Kani), a frustrating fact seeing as her father has already promised her to a wealthy nobleman. Throw in a Blackadder-like manservant hopping through the house (Jason Bennett), a matchmaker dressed in handbags (Patricia Boyer) and an ogre-like cook, and you are in for one of the craziest shows we’ve seen this year.
Supported by a cast willing to rise to her vision, Strike pulls off a production that is crazy, relevant and hilarious. Newton obviously takes centre stage, but is in no way overshadowed by the likes of Boyer and Bennett, as well as Mpho Osei-Tutu’s Le Flesche character.
Sarah Roberts’s Naledi-winning costumes are lavish and expensive-looking. Boyer’s outfit as Frosine is over-the-top, while the string of onions hanging around her cook character’s groin area, just underneath a long baguette sticking from her apron’s kangaroo pouch, certainly did not go unappreciated. Together with composer Dean Barrett’s soundtrack, the viewer is transported to a netherworld somewhere between Game of Thrones and any of the Terry Pratchett Disc-world novels.
Robberts also designed the set along with Chen Nakar, an element of the production that is very much a character on its own. Essentially consisting of a wall of curtains, actors can step on to stage from any direction. While conversations are happening, curtains continuously twitch, shake, and vibrate, creating an overall aura of eavesdropping, peeking, and murmuring.
As both performer and director, Strike (Black and Blue, Shopping and F***in) has established herself as a versatile artist who is constantly evolving.
The Miser is staged through Strike’s sheer passion for the subject matter. Not only did she translate a new version of the play with William Harding, but she also had to raise the funds herself through her Fortune Cookie Theatre Company.
While the pay-offs are huge in The Miser, it’s not unfair to say that this is not “easy” production in terms of stamina and intellectual alertness required. Man cannot live on gags alone, and it is after the viewer has overcome his or her initial wonder that you’ll have to dig deeper into the dialogue in order to realise the brilliance behind Molière’s writing. There are some real, hard-hitting observations here for those savvy enough to recognise truth-wrapped trinkets.