Finborough Theatre November-December 2009
Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical melodrama was written in the shadow of Stalin and therefore had to make its social commentary in code.
Soviet officialdom could only be pleased that Bulgakov makes the Catholic Church his villains, as bishops seek retribution for Moliere's portrait of a hypocritical priest in Tartuffe, and might not notice that the system of informants, interrogations and tricked confessions they employ might bear some resemblance to contemporary Russian models.
And even though Louis XIV is presented in the play as a just and admirable king, those properly attuned could appreciate the play's concern about life subject to the whims of an absolute ruler.
Unfortunately that subtext is the most interesting thing about the play, which otherwise seems thin and cluttered in Michael Glenny's otherwise admirable new translation, which rushes through Bulgakov's four acts in under two hours.
Unable to raise any outrage about Tartuffe in the King or to make a case of atheism against Moliere, the bishops drag out an old scandal in the rumour that the playwright's wife might be his daughter by a former mistress and, as a backup, get a notoriously hot-headed musketeer angry at him.
Even then they can't bring him down, though the play believes that the accumulated hassles contribute to his repeated heart attacks and death.
This dark story - which, without the Soviet subtext, really isn't very involving - is set against lighter and somewhat more engaging scenes backstage or in Louis' court, generally showing the sincere affection everyone but his enemies feels for Moliere.
The play's ultimately unsatisfying thinness is certainly not the fault of director Blanche McIntyre, who not only manoeuvres a sizeable cast around the Finborough's tiny stage but guides several of them to attractive and textured performances.
Justin Avoth lets us understand and believe in a Moliere clever enough to compose a poem in praise of the King on the spot but unable to read anyone around him, while Gyuri Sarossy subtly shows us that the King is smarter and sharper than anyone around him realises.
Paul Brendan is droll in the parallel roles of Moliere's dresser and the King's jester, and Tom Davy makes the not-very-bright musketeer still dashing and oddly loveable.
Moliere remains an interesting historical artefact more than a successful play,t hough the production and performances make it worth seeing.
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Review of Moliere - Finborough Theatre 2009