Preview: The Doctor In Spite of Himself

Are you familiar with the works of the seventeenth century French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin –commonly known as Molière? No? Well, neither was I, until I went to preview this comedy, one of his shorter works on at the Burton-Taylor studio this week. This lack of recognition is understandable given, as director Dionysios Kyropoulos explains to me, performances are rare in the UK. Molière retains much more celebrity in France (obviously), Italy (soon to be made obvious) and the US. The play follows the commedia dell’arte style, which originated in the previous century in Italy, and was defined by the use of traditional masked, archetypal or stock characters portraying extremes of emotion, for example foolish old men or scheming servants. The Doctor In Spite of Himself contains both.

The story follows Sganarella, an alcoholic woodcutter, who gets tricked by his long-suffering wife into pretending to be a doctor and is hired to cure the dumbness of a young girl. This, however, is an impossible task given that her silence is also a performance and tied more to matters of a lovesick heart than an ailing body.

Comparable to a Restoration Comedy, the humour of this play rests on crude jokes and physical comedy. Expect frequent bouts of comedic violence, including some misogynistic remarks, alongside a childish obsession with the bosoms of a Wet-nurse, and good old funny faces. While certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, the physical comedy here is extremely well-choreographed and well-executed, a testament to Dionysios’s attention to detail which, while tiresome for the cast, was certainly worthwhile. Elements of audience interaction are successful due to the commitment of cast members, particularly Rebecca Heitlinger, while Tim O’Leary’s sneaky Sgnarelle, has boundless energy and truly seems to thrive off the success of his deceitful exploits.

Though Moliere’s script dictates much of the staging, a few directions are vague enough to allow the actors to improvise resulting in some scenes which are always fresh, and add to the energy required to keep this sort of material on its feet and holding the audience’s attention. While, as previously mentioned, the play is seventeenth-century, the cast use a nineteenth-century translation to simultaneously retain period character whilst allowing the audience to follow the plot; a good decision resulting in dialogue that’s more understandable than Shakespeare though still includes the occasional “thou” and “tis”.

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This attempt to walk a fine line between retaining the accuracy of Molière’s script and gain the understanding of a modern audience is also reflected in costume choices. While not of the period, you can immediately identify the stereotypical woodcutter by his red checkered lumberjack shirt. Later, his transformation to educated physician is signified by the donning of a scholar’s gown, cap and large yellow bow tie.

As Dionysios mentioned at the end of the preview, the biggest difficultly with this piece – as indeed with any comedy – is timing, but he has little reason to worry. With days of rehearsals left to prefect their eye-rolling, finger-wagging and cheeky grins, as long as you can stomach some traditional French misogyny,  there are far worse ways to spend an hour and an quarter of your 8th week than by popping in to catch this polished performance.