Molire’s last play Le Malade Imaginaire is a scathingly funny lampoon on both hypochondria and the quack medical profession. Hypochondria was something Molire knew a lot about as he was that way inclined himself. Ironically he had been complaining about feeling ill shortly before fatally collapsing on stage during the fourth performance of this play – a famous case of crying wolf too often, you might say. Richard Bean’s ingenious new version of the play makes very clear the parallels between art and life.
The hypochondriac in question is Argan (Henry Goodman), a perfectly well, wealthy gentleman who is convinced that he is seriously ill, probably in more ways than one.
We first see him sitting on his ‘throne’, an armchair cum commode, going through the bills for variously ludicrous treatments from doctors and apothecaries. The way he continually inspects the contents of his chamber pot – or rather gets his impudently sceptical servant Toinette (Lyndsey Marshal) to do it – is a sign of his complete self-obsession. This is a man for whom any movement of the bowels is a matter of fundamental importance.
Argan’s self-preoccupation is so extreme that he has no idea of what is really going on around him. He does not realize that his young second wife Bline (Ronni Ancona) mollycoddles him only because she wants to get her hands on his money and go off with her lover.
And he plans to marry his good-natured daughter Anglique (Carey Mulligan) to the ignorant and imbecilic doctor Thomas Diafoirerhoea (John Marquez) so he can get free in-family consultations, while she loves the more eligible Clante (Kris Marshall).
Bean certainly gets the full comedic value out of Molire’s bawdy, scatological humour, emphasizing more the commedia dell’arte-influenced farce rather than the satirical comedy of manners. There are some witty lines, such as: “With friends like these, who needs enemas?”, but the action becomes increasingly knockabout in the second half, climaxing in an over-the-top song-and-dance routine with Latin-spouting doctors in what can only be described as a postmodernist post-mortem. Earlier on Bean includes a couple of references to Molire’s plays, then at the end Argan morphs into Molire himself. Purists may demur but then Molire’s own productions were often hybrid forms of theatre.
In Giles Cadle’s set the elegant walls are surmounted by jars of murky-looking samples, while a huge array of medicine bottles can be seen whenever a cupboard is opened. Director Lindsay Posner makes sure that the action proceeds with great comic gusto.
Henry Goodman is a hilariously manic Argan who revels in his ‘invalid’ status, which does not stop him from engaging in high-octane rows with Lyndsey Marshal’s provoking Toinette: a classic Molire master/servant relationship. Ronni Ancona certainly makes a big impression as the deliciously duplicitous Bline who allows her husband ‘to touch but not to feel’, while John Marquez is wonderfully gauche as the clownish suitor Thomas.
This may all seem good ‘clean’ fun but in the great theatre in the sky Molire may well be quoting the epigraph on Spike Milligan’s grave: “I told you I was ill.”