Nothing stingy about this vision

Just the ticket: Director Sylvaine Strike has taken a calculated risk in staging The Miser. (Madelene Cronje)

Just the ticket: Director Sylvaine Strike has taken a calculated risk in staging The Miser. (Madelene Cronje)

Staging an old classic is a veritable minefield: one has to be faithful to the original and yet always try to anticipate how the author would have staged it if he or she were alive today. These, surely, were concerns that bothered director, actor and writer Sylvaine Strike, who follows up the success of her previous work, The Table, with a French classic, The Miser by French playwright Molière, which was first staged as L’Avare in 1668.

“I have read Molière quite substantially and I think his work had to be introduced to South African audiences. And when the French season [of performances and events in South Africa] came along, I thought it was a perfect opportunity,” said Strike, who has also conceived and directed productions such as The Butcher Brothers and Baobabs Don’t Grow Here.

Sometimes you have to start, as it were, from scratch. When Strike and co-translator William Harding read the play in an old translation from 1905, she said she found it “more alienating than the original French”.

Yet her mother is French, so it’s a language in which she is fluent. “We translated it together … bettering the English translation by using the original French,” Strike said of the translation process, which took three months to complete. “We found the 1905 translation more safe, decorative and much more elaborate and classical, yet the French original is more timeless and is not [tangled up] in tension.”

Why The Miser? “It’s one of the simplest of his works. Perhaps simple is not the word, but the plot, the subject matter, is more accessible. The topic of greed, the putting of self [or] personal fulfilment before anybody else is a subject most people would understand, particularly here in Johannesburg,” Strike explained.

Strike, winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for drama in 2006, has a solid background in physical theatre — she trained in the discipline at the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris from 1998 to 2000. And she wanted her company of actors (Jason Kennett, Motlatji Ditodi, Patricia Boyer, Mpho Osei-Tutu, Kate Liquorish, Atandwa Kani, William Harding and Lionel Newton) to “understand the text in their bodies before they understood it with their heads; when their bodies understood it, they then could intellectualise it”.  

So the cast started off on a physically taxing two-week boot camp involving yoga, tai chi and voice training. The idea was to pin down the physical aspect of their acting, to make sure the diagonal and horizontal movements were right.  

The production is pleasing on the eye — in the words of the director, “a visual feast”. And this is owed in no small part to costume designer Sarah Roberts’s delectable work. Strike repeated the designer’s brief: “I wanted it to retain the classic feel, to honour Moliere’s time but also to make it high-fashion contemporary.” So she took a blend of Molière’s epoch, but she wanted it firmly on the catwalks of Milan and Paris [around] 2011. I wanted the characters to breathe through their costumes, to be informed by their costumes.”

You can’t stage a production of this nature without upsetting people. A Frenchman who has watched it described the play as a “beautiful object”, but one whose force and contemporaneity have been muted. Strike explained: “What’s interesting from the French response is that [it seems] they had never seen a black person in a Molière play. There was a sense that the play had to be set at a time when there were no black people in Paris.

“They were acutely aware that I had made mixed couples at the end — [something] I wasn’t aware of. I had just chosen the cream of South Africa’s actors and they happened to be of different colours.”

She has been invited to stage the work in France, but funds need to be raised. This would be the first English production of Molière in Paris (akin to a Senegalese production company staging Shakespeare in  French in London).

With patrons having to be turned away from the Market Theatre on certain nights because the play was sold out, Strike explained the possible source of their enthusiasm: “There is a sense of wanting to return to the classical and getting a theatrical experience.”

The production has Newton in the anchor role of Harpagon, a grasping and ham-fisted man who has two independent-minded children with their own ideas about who they want to marry. The Miser mixes aspects of the physical and the clownish (just looking at Osei-Tutu makes you want to burst out laughing) to articulate something timeless about humanity’s desire for material possessions.

The Miser is on at the Market Theatre as part of the French-South Africa seasons, until December 9

Percy Zvomuya

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