If there is one place left in England which could inspire particular resentment at antiquated pretentions, then it is likely Bath. Will Self once suggested that if someone placed a walkway between Bristol and Bath, the Bath end would be lushly carpeted and the Bristol one, well, slightly grimier and harder underfoot. Bath is Bristol’s dear aunt, Miss Havisham, pickled in history and interested only in having visitors come to it.
On the right day, I adore Bath. The limestone daydreams it inspires are usurped only by those connected to Oxford and Evelyn Waugh and I confess to having actually punted down the river. Sort of. Anyhow, Tuesday was not the right day and, after a day clashing with not-always-so-polite Bathonians, I was very ready to pledge allegiance to a character known as The Misanthrope.
Roger McGough’s take on Molière’s play was not, however, the celebration of bad temper I expected it to be. On the contrary, it quite cheered me up. Perhaps because the invitation to adapt Molière was first accepted whilst McGough was a ‘poet in captivity’ on a Saga cruise ship, much of the humour was very Radio 4 and, admittedly, pretty clever. Overt subversion of poetic technique – the misanthrope Alceste, played by Colin Tierney, openly rejects talking in rhyme in order to demonstrate his passion for ‘the truth’ – and linguistic bathos, in particular with the insertion of modern ‘youth’ speech such as Oh My God!, were ripe for transmission on the airwaves to middle aged graduates.
McGough, it appears, very much knows his audience and the patrons who filled the Theatre Royal that night definitely conformed to the stereotype at a glance. It is undeniable that he writes exceptionally well for this audience and indeed if McGough didn’t exist it might be a little bit harder to explain exactly what ‘that type of audience like’. He is suited to Radio 4 in the sense that he almost is Radio 4. Poetry Please is, in many ways, as undeletable as The Shipping Forecast. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel this was somewhat a shame. As a great admirer to McGough and aged under 30, it saddened me to think that this play was only really preaching to the converted, when wouldn’t it be nice if more people were made familiar with his works (or his interminably charming and soothing voice)? If he continues to work in theatre, it would be nice to see his productions move, perhaps, slightly left of this cosy arena. Something about the text of The Misanthrope felt almost too easy, like if Vaughan Williams rose up from the grave and penned The Clifton Suspension Bridge Rhapsody over a nice glass of red. Of course it is good. We knew it would be.
If there was one moment when The Misanthrope showed real shrewdness then it was when Zara Tempest-Walters, playing the unrepentant Célimène declared with genuine verve: ‘I’m 20’. The accompanying piece of dialogue, which included my favourite rhyme ‘Get thee to a nunnery?/ Are you makin’ fun of me?’, was by far the best critique of antique aristo manners. The widowed heroine, whose gossipy behaviour is agonised over, is simply…young. She acts like a flirt, makes bad decisions and rejects marriage to a middle aged man – especially if it involves self-imposed exile into a Chekhov short story– because she only stopped being a teenager last year. As is often the case on a Sunday afternoon, there can be detected in McGough’s closing words the most satisfying and enticing little wink.