Theatre Review: The School for Wives
Damien Richardson as Chris and John Adam as Arnolde. Picture: Brett Boardman Photography.

The School for Wives

Moliere (translated by Justin Fleming)

Bell Shakespeare

State Theatre Centre

There hasn't been a production of the great French dramatist Moliere's work in Perth since the Georgian Film Actors Studio Theatre presented Don Juan at the 1990 Perth Festival.

Edgar Metcalfe's The Misanthrope at the Hole in the Wall 32 years ago was the last local professional show. That's far too long to be deprived of one of the kings of comedy.

Fortunately, Bell Shakespeare has departed from its eponymous mainstay to take The School for Wives, Moliere's satire of pre-nuptial shenanigans, on the road around Australia and it's to be admired for its endeavour and the technical quality of its touring productions. The story of The School for Wives is a delicious twist on a familiar theme - Arnolde (John Adam), a rich, middle-aged man, is so conceited and fearful of being cuckolded that he has a girl, Agnes (Harriet Dyer), raised in a convent to be a bride incapable of deception or disobedience.

Unfortunately for him, while she learns her lessons well, she is unaware they were meant for his benefit and promptly falls madly, truly and dutifully in love with Horace (Meyne Wyatt), the son of Arnolde's old friend Laurence (Mark Jones).

There are a couple of scabrous servants (Andrew Johnston and Alexandra Aldrich) and a venal lawyer (Jonathan Elsom) to ride shotgun on the goings on, a foppish friend (Damien Richardson) for Arnolde to bounce his twisted ideas around with and a suitably happy denouement for almost everyone.

Along the way, Moliere has a snipe at conventional morality, paternalism and every other target he can draw a bead on.

But, unfortunately, the production misfires. This is largely because of a translation from the original French verse into something like vernacular Australian English by Justin Fleming which too often sounds like The Sentimental Bloke or, worse, that cringeworthy half-baked rap which infects so many attempts to be streetwise these days.

Stripped of its poetic force and compaction of imagery, verse can also be a cumbersome medium and the text often lost its original vivacity and nimbleness as a result.

For all the inventiveness of the stage business and the twists and turns of the plot, there were times you wished it would just shake a leg.

It also challenged the cast's ability to create streamlined and funny characters. Matters came to a head with a closing which must be the un-funkiest end to a show in living memory.

What were they thinking?

Things lifted dramatically, though, when Dyer's sweetly determined Agnes was on stage, and the confrontation between her and Arnolde was the most convincing scene.

Director Lee Lewis places the piece attractively in 1920s Paris. Designer Marg Horwell and lighting designer Niklas Pajanti support her with a silent movie-inspired setting that is apt and greatly entertaining.

Jones, a dead ringer for the comedian Bill Bailey, also plays upright piano, bells and whistles, and keeps the whole affair nicely in tune throughout.

The School for Wives ends in Perth tomorrow and concludes its WA tour in Geraldton on Tuesday.

The West Australian

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