The Doctor in Spite of Himself is a translation of Moliere’s hit French comedy. And it is a tongue-in cheek, highly self-conscious comedy at that. It is farce at its best, filled to the brim with witty comebacks, wordy misunderstandings, pranks, and mischief. It is in equal measures funny and alarming, speaking of a wider social consciousness.
The play opens with Sganarelle (David Furlong), an unemployed drunk, beating his wife Lucinde (Anita Adam) with a bronze statue after a particularly nasty fight. But for Lucinde this is the last straw, as she begins to concoct her revenge plan. Interestingly, she turns to a copy of Moliere’s collected works and, in what is reminiscent of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, is able to control much of the play’s actions through this physical manifestation of Moliere’s memory.
Exchange Theatre tries to do something remarkable in this production; an update of a classic. Of course, Moliere’s original is the basis of this production. And Moliere is kept alive through the aforementioned book which is unavoidable, frequently making powerful appearances. While this may be an homage to the talented playwright himself, and a wink to French audiences, it is the use of music which allows this production to be unarguably contemporary and relatable. Blasting songs of Kesha and Katy Perry is both amusing and fitting; it is a fun, simple way to connect British audiences to the play which was absorbing rather than alienating. Such anachronistic elements can sometimes hinder rather than enable a production, however for me, it certainly brought to life what many could view as an inaccessible, forgotten play.
The production heralded two stand-out performances: Furlong as Sganarelle and Matt Mella as Lucas. Not only did these two actors earn the most laughs from the audience – even with two distinctly different comedic styles – but they also seemed the most natural onstage, their delivery allowing an organic flow to the scenes. In what is surely the funniest scene, Lucas helps Sganarelle to dress as a doctor, which is his disguise. This speaks of the wider context of social mobility, and questions the position of the educated upper class. This scene, since it does not contain Moliere’s dialogue, is an original addition of the Exchange Theatre – and a welcome one!
With only facial expressions and movement, Furlong and Mella work together with an energetic partnership; in moments of improvisation, they react closely to one another, both operating on the same plane of comedic understanding. Furlong bumbles from one slapstick comedy bit to another with zeal. But Mella’s comedy is derived from a very different place; his artful portrayal of the witless, blindly faithful servant requires precision and subtle tact. And, when put together, these two create a scene to be remembered.
The Doctor in Spite of Himself most certainly achieved what it aims to do; update and revive a forgotten French classic. Although at times the ability of the other minor characters somewhat hinders the play, this comedy is a farce in its truest form. It is modernised, energetic, and dynamic.
The Doctor in Spite of Himself is playing Drayton Arms until July 13. For more information and tickets, see the Drayton Arms website.
Photo: Ulysse Beauvois