It is easy to see why playwright Ranjit Bolt felt that Molire’s much loved 17th century play, The Misanthrope, was so well suited to a modern adaptation. Tony Blair’s real legacy is one of New Labour spin all sheen, euphemism and carefully chosen words and it is this very culture of disingenuousness that Molire’s hero, or anti-hero, is so riled by, and is desperate to fight against tooth and nail.
In this world premiere of Bolt’s The Grouch, le misanthrope, Alceste, is transformed into Alan, a 21st century intellectual, Guardian columnist and author. It is this very genius, however, that brings him into contact with a moneyed and shallow world where everyone is everyone else’s best friend that is, until they leave the room, at which point it becomes obligatory to point out their every character flaw. And Alan hates it. The constant flattery, the air-kissing, the ‘networking’, the ability indeed, the necessity to turn one’s emotions and attachments on and off like a tap in order to get in with the right people, and put down the wrong ones.
Alan feels like a man out of time, and his outsider status is here brilliantly portrayed, before a word is even uttered, by the set and costume design. All of the action takes place in Celia’s apartment (Celia being the love of Alan’s life, despite her displaying and often actively flaunting all of the character traits that he so abhors) and it is tasteful to a fault – apart from the 20-foot high black and white photograph of herself that dominates one wall. It is white, pink, and clutter-free and all of the men who come to visit her there seem to fit in perfectly with the colour-scheme and general feel of place. All except Alan, of course, who clashes hideously with the decor, his forest green, heavy-gauge corduroy suit screaming out against the minimalist surroundings.
Bolt has decided to write this new adaptation in verse, and while you are constantly aware of that, the syntax and language of this play are in fact its main triumphs, and not at all a distraction or intrusion. These people, Alan included, are quite literally ‘all talk’, so the wordy, deliberate nature of the script is just perfect. It works especially well with an aspiring poet who comes to fawn over Alan and acquire his praise – as well as another Facebook friend to add to his no doubt already astronomical list. As well as the poem he reads itself being awful, his ‘ordinary’ speech is also littered with clumsy rhymes and forced metre. It really is the most perfect coming together of form and content.
Allan Corduner, as Alan, never lets us quite decide whether his constant fight against the world around him really does come from a desire for sincerity, or whether he is simply, as Celia puts it, ‘Mr Devil’s Advocate’ who can’t bear to have the same opinion as anyone else. In any case, the play is ambivalent about whether it is right to be honest all of the time, and ultimately appears to reward two characters who play the game on occasion, but have integrity and humanity too.
This production is graced with good acting throughout, but the real star is, without doubt, the wonderful script. It is clever, very funny, mixes archaic language with references to Madonna, and, best of all, it has the ability to consistently surprise and delight the audience.