Bell Shakespeare's The Miser
First performed in 1668, The Miser is the well-known satire by French playwright Molière, known for other classics such as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. In 2019 Bell Shakespeare brings this classic back to the stage - with a modern look. Rosie spoke to actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson about what Bell Shakespeare has in store for us, and the fresh female voices coming to the forefront. Check out the full interview below:
Off the back of a successful run of The Misanthrope last year, Bell Shakespeare is bringing another Moliere adaptation to the stage. Why do you think Moliere’s works still hold such appeal, and what is it about this 1668 story that still holds merit today?
The play is about someone who values money over love and the consequential erosion of all their personal relationships. I think so long as our society places value in material wealth as well as social bonds, we’ll hold tight to stories of people grappling and struggling between the two. Harpagon, the title role, might just as well be Ebenezer Scrooge or one of Australia’s favourite mining magnates - it’s troubling how easily he fits into a contemporary context. We have a fascination with the private lives of the 1% - I suspect we always have and always will.
Moliere was a playwright known for his grand farces – creating comedic situations that were so highly exaggerated they seemed impossible. What place does farcical comedy have in modern theatre, and how does this particular farce allow the true message of The Miser to be digested?
Apart from the sheer fun it, farce and parody have long been effective devices for taking power away from powerful people and institutions. I mean it’s no spoiler that the grumpy old bastard who alienates his family for the sake of a cashbox is left alone at the end of the play. What’s so delightful is everyone else's constant appeals and attempts to find love despite him - and that’s also where much of the comedy arises. There are plenty of farcical elements - you can imagine the silly business we’re getting up to on a set with 4 doors!
I’m interested to know how Justin Fleming has adapted The Miser for a modern audience. Has much of the plot or themes been changed? Can we expect the original five-act comedy?
It’s true, comedies are often of their time. Justin has indeed kept to the 5 act form, and the tone is definitely that of a classic Moliere, but the language and casting have been contemporised and Australianised in collaboration with Peter and the Bell team. I’d be pretty surprised (and delighted!) if the same-sex relationships and wombat references were in the original.
The fate of the women in Moliere’s The Miser seems to constantly be at the hands of the men in the play. Are there moments where your character Elise shows particular strength or defiance? What has Elise taught you while working on this production?
It’s a tricky one isn’t it - on the one hand, if we’re billing the show as a Moliere there is a responsibility to perform the text as written. But on the other hand I have no interest in stories that don’t move us forward in some way towards social inclusivity and progression - especially when these stories are holding space on stages as significant as those at the Opera House.
From the get-go, discussions about staging this production included finding clever and text-supported ways to present women with agency and the freedom to determine their own fate. The character of Valere, our heroic traveller (originally male), was gender-swapped, so we have at least one young woman presented outside the frame of paternal control. This also brings a queer voice into the play as Elise and Valere are desperately in love, and together they spend the entire play trying to claim their right (via Elise’s father’s consent) to marry. So Elise’s struggle to convince Harpagon that she can marry a lower-class match in the original text, has really elegantly become a story about a young woman struggling to come out to her intolerant father. I suppose the biggest thing I’ve learnt from Elise is how grateful I am to live in a society that would support my decision to marry (or not marry) whomever I chose.
The Miser marks your debut with Bell Shakespeare. What is it like to join this company and to work on this particular production with John Bell?
The whole Bell Shakespeare Co is completely lovely and I’ve been made to feel so welcome! John’s a bit below average though, isn’t he? HA! Obviously it’s fantastic - he’s set the pace for an extremely playful, detailed and adventurous room. On day one he introduced himself as “Scruge McDuck”, I mean COME ON, the man’s delightful. Honestly, working with this entire cast is like a masterclass on clowning - everyone is so bloody funny! There are plenty of scenes I still have to bite my lip in to keep a straight face.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
There are too many to name!
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Turkey, arriving at breakfast time.
Dream role in any show to perform?
I don’t have one!
Plays or musicals?
Bell Shakespeare's The Miser opens at the Sydney Opera House on March 2 2019. You can get your tickets here.