The Misanthrope at the Sydney Opera House
Bell Shakespeare and Griffin are bringing Justin Fleming's latest Moliere reaction to the Sydney Opera House starting from this week! Carly had a chat with the wonderful Catherine Davies ahead of Opening Night - have a read below:
Firstly, we’re very excited to see you back on the Sydney stage so soon. How did your involvement in the Misanthrope begin and how has preparation for this show differed at all from previous experiences with Bell Shakespeare?
Lee Lewis is someone I have been hoping to work with again for a long time. She actually gave me my first job when I graduated from drama school at QT and I moved down to Sydney. I did a week-long play development with her, and it’s actually taken us ten years to work together again!
It’s a real opportunity to be working with such an amazing group of actors, and working with Justin Fleming’s work which is just an absolute joy, especially when he’s in the room to kind of hear how his mind works.
He is a genius! Well, I definitely think he is.
He’s just really fantastic – he is so witty and obviously respects the work of Moliere a lot but also really considers contemporary sensibilities and has a really progressive approach to Moliere’s ideas. I don’t feel like we’re trying to push meaning into a classic that isn’t there for a contemporary audience, it feels like this version is very now and yet somehow is still extremely faithful to the original.
As an actor that works predominantly with new work, that’s where my priorities lie. Growing up I felt excluded from the classics, I didn’t feel like they resonated with me in any particular way. It wasn’t until last year when I worked with Bell Shakespeare on Merchant of Venice that I saw a new approach to classics and I saw how I fit into it and how it fits into our world. I think this Co-production with Griffin is brilliant because it shows that the two can talk to each other – that classics and new works can talk to each other without having to be one or the other.
The Misanthrope. Photo Credit: Brett Boardman
When you’re working with a piece like this - and I’m sure casts of Justin’s previous works can agree – you do have to have a particular passion for the old, but mainly for bringing the old into the new. How do you approach this?
It’s a monster tackle as an actor as well, especially the language. Even though it’s contemporary and uses an Australian vernacular, it’s incredibly dense, and the muscularity, the pure technical aspect of it is a workout. It’s definitely exciting to be working that way as well.
You’d constantly be going home exhausted from rehearsals!
And my workload is not that of some of the others! Danielle and Ben - oh my gosh! They are running a marathon! I feel like in Going Down which was the last show I did, I ran a physical marathon but in this piece, they are doing an absolute word and mind marathon. It’s incredible!
The Misanthrope. Photo Credit: Brett Boardman
Justin Fleming is known for his creative and quote exceptional treatment of Moliere works, and giving them new life on our Australian stages. If you could speak a bit more about the behind the scenes aspect that you’ve started to touch on – what is it like to work with him in the room, and what’s the rehearsal process with the rest of the cast been like as well? How do you go about tackling this kind of a work?
We had Justin in in about the third week, because he’s in very high demand. If I’d had it my way we would have had him the whole time – not because of needing to adjust things, just because he’s such a gorgeous presence to have around. He has a real passion for the work, and a generosity towards us as actors. His lines are also wonderful and kooky, and sometimes you need to hear him say it to properly understand that line. I think when people hear that something is in rhyme, there’s an immediate resistance because they think it’s going to be lame. But when you’re rhyming candour with verandah, or trackman with Hugh Jackman, the poetry is funny and unpredictable, and not always really obvious. So there’s a real joy when you’re trying to pick those rhymes as an audience member.
The cast is gorgeous, and we’re having a lot of fun. It’s interesting because with Moliere, it’s not the sort of high comedy that we’ve come to expect from the Literati or the Hypochondriac, this was very much a protest piece from Moliere. The comedy is very biting, funny but in that very Australian way of cutting something or someone down. It’s great to be in the company of people who all have a strong background in comedy, but to be able to make this show not just about laughs. The laughs are very much in the language or in the characters, not just in executing a gag. It’s a battle between ideas – it’s exciting to find humour in that and it’s exciting to find real fight within that. I feel like I learn so much from the other cast members, which has been so unbelievably valuable.
This play was written in the 17th Century, but what about this play, in particular this production, makes it relevant to a 21st Century audience? What can they expect?
I think there have been a lot of new ideas brought to the work such as having a female actor play a traditionally male role that was originally played by Moliere, now to have Danielle Cormack in the titular role. The play brings up questions about power and our ability to exercise our thoughts and critical thinking, as well as when honesty impedes on kindness – that’s a big question as well. It’s such a nuanced argument about truth – there are social considerations that come into truth telling, but also, where do we become complacent out of fear of upsetting the status quo? These conversations are all super relevant to a modern audience. When you’re applying theories about behaviour, how do you do that when human behaviour is not that black and white?
This version has been updated to be set in the music world, which is interesting because the music world is popular culture at its prime. You see the manufacturing of image, and how there can be the duality of being false as well as being very true, and also playing a game. With that we get graced with such things as original songs that we get to hear on stage.
The Misanthrope. Photo Credit: Brett Boardman
In Going Down earlier this year at Sydney Theatre Company, you played Natalie, a character that is a very strong and strong-willed woman. The Misanthrope features another strong woman – how important are these kinds of works in the current Australian theatre scene and why are these projects particularly attractive to you?
We’re seeing women afforded opportunities to be represented in ways that haven’t necessarily been available, even more so if you come from a diverse cultural background. I’ve never come across a character like Natalie before, and I’ve certainly never been able to work on something before that has felt so, so close to home. I thought “Is this what it’s like for everyone else? Is this what I’ve been missing out on?” Even just as a female character – not that you can separate her ethnicity – to be able to play someone who goes to all extremes, who can go from being super likeable to super unlikeable, to being aggressive to being vulnerable and loving, it’s going that step beyond in representing women on stage. It’s the same in The Misanthrope – I think the strength in this play is that we don’t just represent these women as being strong. It’s a slightly problematic idea to just represent strong women as the one way women should be. In fact, the strength that exists in these women is the fact that they have a whole multitude of emotions and experiences and reactions to things, and some of those are not necessarily the best way to behave. We’re able to be grotesque, we’re allowed to be angry, we’re allowed to be hopelessly in love and make terrible decisions. We’re starting to see more and more women who we can actually relate to. They can be aspirational in their power, but in the end are also as human as the reality we as women know they stay. I think it takes off that expectation that as women to be successful we need to be all these two-dimensional things. The more representation there is, the less we have to act as representatives. That’s the same for any minority or underrepresented group.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS.
Favourite production you’ve ever seen?
There was a play by Castalucci down at Adelaide Festival – it’s something biblical. I remember being so excited by the theatre magic in that, and a commitment to a slightly surrealist non-linear narrative.
Also everything in the Independent sector, especially the work that comes out of Melbourne, all of the amazing shows that come out of that are phenomenal.
I also want to shout out to performance artist Glitta Supanova who’s a real pioneer in feminist performance who did a one-woman show called Body Map that was absolutely excellent. That kind of work is so important for people to see.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world. Where do you go?
Can I go to outer space, is that possible? I want to go to outer space.
Plays or musicals?
What’s a hobby that you have other than theatre?
I’m currently reading a lot about Astrophysics, so I’m really into that realm right now. That has consumed me. I’m also really into plants.
Dream role to perform?
I don’t think it’s been created. It’s still to come, and I believe in new voices to create it.
What’s next for you after this show?
I have An Enemy of the People at Belvoir where I’ll be reuniting with Anne-Louise Sarsks. This year’s chockablock which is really really fun.
For tickets to see The Misanthrope, click here. Want a sneak peak?
Check out the Production Images below (photo credit: Brett Boardman)