Speaking to Cherwell earlier this month, Simon Callow described the tone of The Philanthropist, Christopher Hampton’s inversion of Moliere’s Misanthrope, as “scintillating, witty and unexpected”. While these accolades do seem a tad hyperbolic, it is undeniable that this revival of a 1970s classic is clever and sharp, even if not ground-breaking.
Directed by Simon Callow, the production boasts an all-star cast, most recognisable to our generation through their forays into television comedy. With the principle roles played by Simon Bird (The Inbetweeners), Charlotte Ritchie (Fresh Meat) and Tom Rosenthal (Plebs), you could be forgiven for not expecting highbrow humour. It is perhaps refreshing then, that the brand of humour is far more subtle and understated than one might perhaps anticipate.
The first act is characterised by a level of word play and paradox that is almost reminiscent of Wilde—certainly, lines like “I’m a man of no convictions. At least I think I am” are redolent of Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, and there are clever textual details that eagle-eyed theatre-goers may notice, such as the character names—“Phil” for Simon Bird’s philologist, and “Don” for Tom Rosenthal’s academic don.
However, as well as operating as a trivial comedy for serious people, The Philanthropist is engaging on a more abstract, meta-theatrical level, that seems more akin to Tom Stoppard than Oscar Wilde. The opening scene depicts a man describing his imminent desire to commit suicide to two academics, which is revealed, a minute later, to be merely a rehearsed reading of his draft manuscript—a moment greatly reminiscent of The Real Thing. However, a minute later, critical reception of the manuscript and a misunderstanding leads the man to actually shoot himself in the head—a gesture Rosenthal’s character describes, in a darkly comic moment, as “absent-minded”.
The second act brings to fruition the more profound subplots foreshadowed in the first half, commenting on things like suicide and sexual abuse, but dissonantly maintaining the same absurdist, existentialist tone. While there are fewer laugh-out-loud moments to be had, the second half is all the more engaging for its critical exploration of the play’s earlier gags—the character development of Philip, whom we learn is a man plagued by his perpetual inability to criticise or show any kind of misanthropy, undermines the earlier jokes about his passivity and submissiveness. This thematic duality, with the poignant moments of the second act stemming from the comic moments of the first, creates a sense of antiphonal parallelism.
It seems strange to me that so few critics have considered the similarities between The Philanthropist and much fifth century Greek tragedy. The three dramatic unities are more than attended to: the action is based around a single dinner party, and happens over a single day in a single location (the set of an academic fellow at an Oxbridge-type university). Bird’s Philip has his fair share of cla]ssical hamartia, his inability to be misanthropic is ultimately his downfall (hence the ironic title of the show, and the inversion of Moliere’s classic).
Certainly, the play shares in a lot of classical tropes, but the ending, which is comedically anticlimactic, is somewhat lacking in catharsis. For a conversation piece that has consistently tried to seem purposeful, this is an odd paradox.
Aside from the script, many aspects of the production are also thoughtful and clever. Libby Watson’s set design is elegant and tasteful, and the costume design aptly reconciles the youth of the cast with the experience of their characters and the garish 1970s setting. The cast are also excellent, and while Bird and Ritchie are given the chance to demonstrate their more serious acting abilities through an emotional interaction in the second half, you almost wish we could see more of the rest of the cast as well—it feels like a waste of talent, especially of Matt Berry and Tom Rosenthal.
Overall, The Philanthropist is an odd mix of laugh-out-loud comedy, existentialist angst
and metatheatrical dark humour. At times it feels like there is a disjunct between the purposefully philosophical tone of the play and the audience, who expect a routine two
hour gag roll, but this is not a weakness in itself, and in many ways the departure from
expectation increases engagement with The Philanthropist as a didactic piece that makes
a point. I just wish I knew what that point was.